March 8, 2023
NRF: Imports expected to slowly climb through mid-summer
Import cargo volume at U.S. major container ports is expected to begin slowly climbing again in March after February saw one of the lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
“There are many uncertainties about the economy, but we expect imports to show modest gains over the next several months,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain & customs policy at NRF. “Growth is a positive sign, but levels are still far below normal, and retailers will remain cautious as they work to keep inventories in line with consumer demand.”
Added Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates: “Retailers are maintaining reduced inventories in anticipation of rebuilding with new seasonal stock once they have a clearer take on expected levels of consumer spending. While import volumes remain low, the tight labor market and strong wages are helping consumers absorb the impact of inflation and continue to spend.”
U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.81 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in January, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 16.5% year over year but up 4.4% from December for the first month-over-month increase since last August.
Ports have not yet reported February numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected that the month dropped to 1.56 million TEU, down 13.6% from January and down an unusually large 26.2% from a year earlier. That would make it the slowest month since 1.53 million TEU in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed due to the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, only the 1.51 million TEU recorded in February 2020 and 1.37 million TEU in March 2020 have been lower.
Even without the impact of the pandemic, February is historically the slowest month of the year because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia and retailers’ lull between the holiday season and spring shopping. In February 2022, the impact of Lunar New Year was mitigated by congestion at U.S. ports that kept a supply of vessels waiting to unload, resulting in an artificially large year-over-year comparison this February.
Beginning this month, imports are expected to climb at least through mid-summer but will nonetheless remain below last year’s levels. March is forecast at 1.74 million TEU, down 25.9% year over year; April at 1.87 million TEU, down 17.2%; and May at 1.92 million TEU, down 19.7%. June is forecast at 2 million TEU, the first time imports are expected to be that high since October but down 11.5% from last June. July is forecast at 2.13 million TEU, down 2.5 percent year over year.
The first half of 2023 is forecast at 10.9 million TEU, down 19.5% from the first half of 2022. Imports for 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.
Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.