U.S. Retail Imports Remain High Despite Shipping Challenges 

retail import volumes expected to remain strong
Containers at the Port of Long Beach

Published Oct 7, 2021 4:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

Imports at the nation’s largest retail container ports should remain at near-record levels this month but could see a slight dip from last year’s unusually high numbers as congestion slows the movement of backed-up cargo, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The cargo is there for larger gains at several ports but congestion issues are impacting fluid operations,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Ships will eventually get unloaded but the pressure is on for everyone to work together to get the containers out as quickly as possible. Retailers are doing whatever it takes to make sure shelves are well-stocked for the holidays, from bringing in merchandise earlier to chartering their own ships.”

The NRF cites a broad range of now familiar issues impacting retailers’ ability to receive merchandise. With COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia slowing the loading of U.S.-bound ships, and shortages of equipment, labor, and outbound truck and rail capacity have continued to build congestion at U.S. ports, the NRF forecasts that the volume of retail imports will plateau and even show a slight decline in October, representing the first drop in year-over-year volumes since July 2020. October is forecast at 2.21 million TEU, which would be down 0.3 percent from the same time last year, and also down from the expected 2.25 million TEU, which would be up 6.7 percent year-over-year, for September.

The congestion and disruption come in the middle of the “peak season” for shipping when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise each year. The retail trade association however says that many retailers began bringing in holiday goods this summer to be sure sufficient inventory will be available.

The Global Port Tracker also looks for a final push for retail imports coming in November. They expect the month to be up nearly three percent year-over-year to 2.16 million TEU. They forecast the year to end with December being largely flat at 2.1 million TEU.

Despite the slowing of the volume increases, the NRF forecasts for the full year retail import volumes will be up 18.1 percent over 2020. At an expected total of 26 million TEU, it will be a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million TEU.

The forecast also foresees a strong start to 2022. January 2022 is projected at 2.17 million TEU, up 5.7 percent from January 2021, and February 2022 is forecast at 1.9 million TEU, up 1.4 percent year-over-year.

Many experts in the container shipping industry have forecast that it could be well into 2022 before the system begins to fully stabilize and recover from the backlogs and shortages that plagued 2021.