U.S.-bound import outlook remains bright, says Global Port Tracker report

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United States retail container import levels are expected to remain elevated through the balance of 2021, amid going port congestion and related supply chain issues, according to the most recent issue of the Global Port Tracker report, which was released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Consultants.

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.

“Dockworkers are unloading ships as fast as they can, but the challenge is to move the containers out of the ports to make room for the next ship,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “We need better empty return procedures and more chassis, truck drivers, rail capacity and warehouse workers to keep the system moving. Retailers have enough inventory on hand to make sure shoppers won’t go home empty-handed this holiday season. But there are still items sitting on the docks or waiting on ships that need to make it to store shelves and online sellers’ warehouses. Retailers want to make sure customers have product choices.”

What’s more, the report observed how more than 70 ships were reported waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last week, with the wait at Los Angeles averaging two weeks over the past month.

“Those delays, in turn, can push back the vessels’ arrival at other ports on their schedules,” the report said. “Some carriers have announced plans to divert to other locations, but congestion is building nationwide.”

And the combination of congestion and supply chain disruptions have remained intact going back to last year and into this year’s Peak Season, the report noted. But at the process leading up to Peak Season has been far from typical, it said, with myriad retailers bringing in holiday season merchandise much earlier than normal, in order to ensure enough inventory was stocked. NRF also recently issued its holiday season sales forecast, which it classifies as the months of November and December, pegging 2021 to be up between 8.5%-to-10.5% annually.

For September, the most recent month for which data is available, import volumes—at 2.14 million TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units)—fell 5.9% compared to August and are up 1.4% annually. May 2021 remains the all-time highest-volume month, at 2.33 million TEU).

October imports were pegged at 2.19 million TEU, for what would be a 1.2% annual decrease. This would still mark one of the five highest-volume months on record, and it would also mark the first annual decline going back to July 2020, a period when U.S.-bound imports began to see material increases with businesses starting to reopen, coupled with pent-up consumer demand and retailers gearing up for the holidays.

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