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Why Are Imports Slowing This Holiday Season? Get the Latest Figures from the NRF


Photo of a container ship pulling up to a port.

Imports at the nation’s major container ports are set to continue slowing from records set earlier in the year according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, though retailers should expect a busy holiday season the next two months.

The cargo data comes as NRF forecasts that 2022 holiday retail sales will grow between 6 percent and 8 percent over 2021 to between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion. While consumers are still buying more, Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said demand has fallen from peak consumption during the height of the pandemic.

“We expect the flattening of demand that began around the middle of this year to continue into the first half of 2023,” said Hackett. “This will depress the volume of imports, which has already declined in recent months. Carriers have begun to pull services and are looking at laying up ships.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled a record 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in May, but volume has seen a mostly steady decline since then.

Ports processed 2.03 million TEU in September, the latest month for which final numbers are available, down 10.2 percent from August and down 4.9 percent from September 2021.

“Cargo levels that historically peak in the fall peaked in the spring this year as retailers concerned about port congestion, port and rail labor negotiations and other supply chain issues stocked up far in advance of the holidays,” explained Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “With a rail strike possible this month, there are still challenges in the supply chain, but the majority of holiday merchandise is already on hand and retailers are well prepared to meet demand.”

Ports have not yet reported October’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.02 million TEU, down 8.5 percent year-over-year. November is forecast at 1.92 million TEU, down 9.2 percent from the previous year and the lowest number since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021, the last time the monthly total fell below 2 million TEU. December is expected to drop to 1.9 million TEU, down 9 percent year-over-year.

The first half of 2022 totaled 13.5 million TEU, a 5.5 percent increase year-over-year. The forecast for the remainder of the year would bring the second half to 12.3 million TEU, down 53 percent from the previous year. For the full year, 2022 is expected to total 25.86 million TEU, barely changed from last year’s annual record of 25.84 million TEU.

January 2023 is forecast at 1.98 million TEU, down 8.4 percent from January 2022. February is forecast at 1.71 million TEU, down 19.1 percent from high numbers last year, when backed-up cargo kept congested U.S. ports busy despite the annual Lunar New Year shutdown of Asian factories. With most congestion issues continuing to ease, the month is expected to be the slowest since 1.61 million TEU in June 2020. March is forecast at 1.99 million TEU, which would be a raise from February but down 15.2 percent year-over-year.

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