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Retail Cargo Imports Near Record Pace Despite Port Congestion

Cargo imports at congested U.S. container ports are expected to remain at near-record levels for the remainder of the year, as retailers rush to move merchandise from docks to shelves in time to meet the expectations of holiday shoppers, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“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,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF, said.

Gold said better return procedures for empty containers and more chassis, truck drivers, rail capacity and warehouse workers are needed to keep the system moving.

“Retailers have enough inventory on hand to make sure shoppers won’t go home empty-handed this holiday season,” he said. “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.”

More than 70 ships were reported waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last week and the wait at Los Angeles has averaged two weeks over the past month, according to Global Port Tracker. “Those delays, in turn, can push back the vessels’ arrival at other ports on their schedules. Some carriers have announced plans to divert to other locations, but congestion is building nationwide.”

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U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.14 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) down 5.9 percent from August but up 1.4 percent year over year. Ports have not reported October numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.19 million TEU, down 1.2 percent from October 2020. The year-over-year decline would be the first since July 2020, after which unusually high import volumes began to arrive when stores closed by the pandemic reopened and retailers worked to meet pent-up consumer demand and to stock up for the holidays.

Even with the year-over-year decline, October would be among the five busiest months on record since NRF began tracking such imports in 2002. The influx of cargo is expected to continue through the end of the year, with November cargo shipments forecast at 2.17 million TEU, up 3.3 percent year-over-year, and December at 2.18 million TEU, up 3.5 percent.

Looking into next year, Global Port Tracker forecast January cargo imports to increase 7.6 percent to 2.21 million TEU, February to be up 7 percent to 2 million TEU and March to dip 4.1 percent to 2.17 million.

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6 percent from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 26 million TEU, up 17.9 percent over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.