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Cargo Imports Setting Records as Supply Chains Struggle With Demand

What’s going on at American ports speaks volumes about the nation’s economic recovery.

Imports at the largest U.S. retail container ports saw their busiest April on record and May could turn out to have set a new all-time record as vaccines allowed consumers to return to normal shopping patterns, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Vaccine rates are increasing, shoppers are back in stores and retail supply chains are working overtime,” Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy said. “There’s no shortage of demand from consumers, but there continue to be shortages of labor, equipment and shipping capacity to meet that demand. Supply chain disruptions, port congestion and rising shipping costs could continue to be challenges through the end of the year.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.15 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) in April, making it by far the busiest April on record and an increase of 33.4 percent from a year earlier, when most stores were closed by the coronavirus pandemic. April’s results followed 2.27 million TEU in March, which set the record for the most containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

For May, Global Port Tracker projected a year-over-year increase of 51.1 percent to 2.32 million TEU reaching ports, beating March’s total to set another new record for the largest number of containers in a single month.

“Supply chains are finding it difficult to keep up with demand as shipping capacity struggles,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “A number of vessels taken out of service when volumes were low remain in drydock, while others are delayed in congested ports, which face a lack of manpower both because of COVID-19 illnesses and the tight labor market. Many people remain hesitant about returning to work, affecting ports, rail, trucking and distribution centers.”

June containers imports are forecast at 2.13 million TEU, up 32.8 percent year-over-year, while July shipments are projected to rise 14.2 percent to 2.19 million TEU and August imports are seen at 2.26 million TEU, up 7.5 percent. Looking into the fall, cargo imports are forecast to rise 1.7 percent in September to 2.14 million TEU and then fall 6.5 percent to 2.07 TEU in October for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020.

The first half of 2021 is forecast at 12.8 million TEU, up 35.3 percent over the same period in 2020. As with each month this spring, the year-over-year comparison is skewed due to the sharp decline in imports during the first half of last year. But the six-month total would put 2021 on track to top 2020’s full-year total of 22 million TEU, which was 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.

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