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Retail Cargo Imports Set New Record as Port Congestion Eases

Cargo imports at key retail goods container ports hit a new record this spring and first-half volume is expected to be around 33 percent higher than last year as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.27 million 20-foot container or its equivalent (TEU) in March. That was up 21.2 percent from February and set a new record for the number of containers seen during a single month since NRF began tracking them in 2002. The previous record of 2.21 million TEU was set in October.

March volume was up a record 64.9 percent year-over-year but the growth rate was artificially high because many Asian factories had shut down due to the pandemic at that point last year and most U.S. stores were being ordered to close.

“Despite the continuing pandemic, most consumers…aren’t hesitating to spend,” Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “More spending translates into more merchandise arriving at our ports, as retailers continue to meet increasing demand. The cargo surge that began last fall doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Unfortunately, disruption and congestion issues are also continuing.”

Global Port Tracker forecast first half cargo container imports to be up 33.9 percent from the same period in 2020. As with March, the growth is skewed over the sharp decline in imports during the first half of 2020. But the six-month total of 12.7 million TEU would put 2021 on track to beat 2020’s full-year total of 22 million TEU, which was up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

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April cargo imports were projected at 2.17 million TEU, up 34.5 percent year-over-year. May shipments are forecast to jump 44.9 percent to 2.22 million TEU, June is seen growing 29.7 percent to 2.08 million TEU and July is projected to be up 12.2 percent to 2.15 million TEU. Going into the second half of the year, August cargo imports are forecast to increase 6 percent to 2.23 million TEU, September to grow 1.3 percent to 2.13 million TEU.

The ongoing high cargo volume reflects the recovering U.S. economy, Global Port Tracker said, noting that gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 6.4 percent in the first quarter and some economists are predicting 13 percent GDP growth in the second quarter.

“Growth that fast is a clear indication that U.S. economic output has almost recovered to its level before the pandemic struck,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Retail sales numbers show consumers are spending a large portion of their stimulus checks, as well as savings that accumulated while staying home rather than going out and income from new jobs.”

Hackett said congestion at the twin Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach–the nation’s largest port complex–has begun to ease as carriers have shifted vessels to the Pacific Northwest or to the East Coast via the Panama Canal. But some ships are still facing delays to unload as ports work at capacity and Covid infections impact workers. Shortages of containers and other equipment and operational issues also continue to slow down the supply chain.

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.