Imports to Rise in the First Half of 2022 on Strong Consumer Demand

retail imports expected to rise in first half of 2022
NRF expects port congrestion to continue as import volumes rise in the first half of 29022 (Port of Charleston file photo)

Published Mar 10, 2022 8:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to be at near-record levels this spring and summer having started 2022 with significant increases over the already strong volumes in 2021. As long as consumer demand remains strong, the National Retail Federation is expecting continued strong volumes through at least the first half of 2022 leading to further port congestion and supply chain disruptions.

“Consumers are still spending and the supply chain is still working to keep up,” says Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the NRF. “Growth rates have slowed down from the off-the-charts numbers we saw last year, but volume is close to the highest we’ve ever seen. Everyone in the supply chain is trying to reduce congestion, but there is still work to be done.”

According to the retail association’s monthly Global Port Tracker report, retail imports began 2022 with solid year-over-year increases. U.S. ports covered by the report had a 5.2 percent year-over-year volume increase in January 2022. Handling 2.16 million TEU, the volumes were also 3.6 percent ahead of the prior month. Possibly reflecting the rush to move goods from Asia before the Chinese New Year holiday, NRF forecasts that February was stronger showing a 10.5 percent year-over-year increase to 2.07 million TEU, but also likely contributing to a 4.5 percent decline for March, which is forecast at 2.17 million TEU.

They continue to point to the challenges at ports as one of the greatest issues noting that ships still  have to either slow steam or wait offshore for berth space. “Problems remain with clearing import containers to their inland destinations while export containers are still being held back due to lack of space at the terminals,” says Ben Hackett, founder of the firm that produces the data for the NRF. “Until supply chain problems are sorted out with more drivers, trucks, and inland storage space, we do not expect to see a rapid decline in the backlogs being experienced.”

For the first six months of 2022, the NRF is forecasting the imports will rise by 2.4 percent year-over-year, reaching an estimated total of 13.1 million TEU. For the individual months in the second quarter, the NFR foresees volume increases ranging between three and more than four percent or more than 2.2 million TEU per month.

The uncertainties, however, include the potential for further disruptions in the supply chain from continued port congestion and backlogs getting containers inland to their destination. The NRF notes that retailers are also planning for potential additional disruptions this summer from West Coast port labor contract negotiations, but it does not address the potential impact of spiraling fuel costs and the strong inflation. The war in Ukraine has created new uncertainties with some economists speculating that the U.S. and global economy could be quickly driven into a recession by rising costs which are likely to slow consumer demand.

Shipping association BIMCO in its analysis of the repercussions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine noted likely impacts to all segments of shipping. The one positive note they projected is that as imports and global volumes slow ports should have the first opportunity to clear their backlogs and prepare for future surges in volume.