U.S. Imports Expected to Remain Strong According to NRF

container imports
U.S. import levels are projected to remain strong for the coming months in 2024 (Port of Los Angeles file photo)

Published May 8, 2024 8:16 PM by The Maritime Executive


Monthly inbound cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports should consistently be above two million TEUs through this summer and into early fall, according to the latest forecast from the National Retail Federation. The trade association for retailers highlights the strong continued consumer spending and retailers’ efforts to maintain inventory levels in the summer selling season.

“We haven’t seen numbers this high for this many months in almost two years,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the NRF. “Regardless of what headlines about the economy might say, consumers are shopping and retailers are making sure they have merchandise on hand to meet demand.”

The group highlights strong year-over-year gains in the first quarter of 2024 with a total TEU volume at the more than dozen major U.S. container ports topping 5.8 million TEU. The first quarter volume was up 17 percent over 2023. 

The continued strength is prompting the trade group to raise its second-quarter forecast by more than one percent and setting the stage for total TEU volume to surpass the two million boxes a month level for only the third time since a 19-month streak that ended in October 2022. They are forecasting starting in May monthly volume will exceed two million boxes a month and continue above that monthly mark at least through September. The late summer and early fall are traditionally peak season as retailers stock up for fourth-quarter sales.

Gene Seroka, Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles, for example, has highlighted that the West Coast ports have additional capacity. They look to continue to rebuild volumes versus 2023 when the ports were impacted by labor negotiations. 

“We are still seeing a strong volume of goods flowing into ports despite global geopolitical turmoil, high interest rates, and a slowdown in economic growth,” said Ben Hackett, Founder of Hackett Associates which prepares the monthly Global Port Tracker for the NRF. “There has been a surge of container imports on all three coasts, with the strongest being the Gulf, followed by the Pacific and the East Coast. The issue now is whether this surge will continue or level off.”

The NRF is forecasting that the first half of 2024 will total 11.9 million TEU, up 13 percent from the same period last year. The projections call for volumes of 6.05 million TEU for the second quarter, increasing to 6.16 million TEU in the third quarter. The NRF highlights that imports totaled 22.3 million TEU during 2023, down 12.8 percent from 2022.