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New Port Tracker report signals more U.S.-bound import declines over the rest of 2023

Lower United States-bound imports are expected to continue in the coming months, according to the new edition of the Port Tracker report, which was issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland; Tacoma; Seattle; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads; Charleston, and Savannah; Miami; Jacksonville; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.

Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“Cargo volume is lower than last year but retailers are entering the busiest shipping season of the year bringing in holiday merchandise. The last thing retailers and other shippers need is ongoing disruption at the ports,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “If labor and management can’t reach agreement and operate smoothly and efficiently, retailers will have no choice but to continue to take their cargo to East Coast and Gulf Coast gateways. We continue to urge the administration to step in and help the parties reach an agreement and end the disruptions so operations can return to normal. We’ve had enough unavoidable supply chain issues the past two years. This is not the time for one that can be avoided.”

NRF issued a statement this week calling on the Biden administration to intervene following reports of disruptions at terminals at the Ports of Oakland and Long Beach. It said that the disruptions have come as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association have failed to reach a new labor agreement after more than a year of negotiations.

For April, the most recent month for which data is available, Port Tracker observed that import volumes, for the ports covered in the report, came in at 1.78 million TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units), which marked a 9.6% gain over March’s 1.62 million TEU— the lowest volume in a month going back to May 2020’s 1.53 million TEU, when several Asian-based factories and U.S.-based stores were closed because of the pandemic—and a 21.3% annual decline.

Port Tracker issued projections for May and the subsequent months, including:

  • May, at 1.84 million TEU, for a 23% annual decrease;
  • June at 1.91 million TEU, for a 15.3% annual decrease
  • July, at 1.99 million TEU, for an 8.9% annual decrease;
  • August, at 2.02 million TEU, for a 10.5% annual decrease;
  • September, at 1.95 million TEU, for a 4% annual decrease; and
  • October, at 1.95 million TEU, for a 2.7% annual decrease

The report observed that should the estimates through June hold, the first half of 2023 would come in at 10.5 million TEU, for a 22.3% annual increase.

While a full-year forecast has not been issued, it said that the third quarter is pegged at 5.97 million TEU, for a 7.9% annual decline, with the first nine months of the year estimated to come in at 16.48 million TEU, for a 17.6% annual decrease. Total 2022 imports—at 25.5 million TEU—were down 1.2% annually compared to 2021’s all-time record of 25.8 million TEU.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report that there is an ongoing disconnect intact, in that economists and container shipping lines are increasingly wondering why the decline in container import demand is so much at odds with continuous growth in consumer demand, which has been bolstered by strong employment numbers and personal income increases.

“Import container shipments are down to nearly pre- pandemic levels and appear likely to stay there for a while,” wrote Hackett. “Last year’s high levels would be hard to match, and we project that the first half of 2023 will see volumes at the primary ports we track down nearly 22 percent versus last year, with the West Coast down 25.5 percent and the East Coast down nearly 20 percent. So long as consumers maintain their confidence, we continue to remain upbeat about the second half of the year.”

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About the Author

Jeff Berman's avatar
Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review and is a contributor to Robotics 24/7. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis.
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