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Omicron a ‘Wild Card’ for Retail Cargo Imports: NRF

After a year of unprecedented increases, imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to return to normal growth rates in 2022, but volumes will remain high, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Even with the holiday season behind us, supply chain challenges continue,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “The huge increases in imports we’ve seen have leveled out, but volume is still at high levels. We hope the system will find a way to catch up, but there is much that remains to be done to clear out port backlogs and increase capacity throughout the supply chain.”

Gold said that the Omicron Covid-19 variant is “a wild card that could not only impact the supply chain workforce but once again drive more imports if consumers stay home and spend their money on retail goods rather than going out.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett added that “the atmosphere of uncertainty is likely to have an impact on demand going forward.”

“We believe trade growth is returning to normal levels reflective of economic factors,” Hackett said. :We do not expect that double-digit expansion of import volumes will continue in 2022.”

The Global Port Tracker report said retail container imports saw year-over-year growth as high as 65 percent in some months during 2021, the result of increased consumer demand, retailers’ efforts to stock up to mitigate supply chain challenges and comparisons against periods early in 2020 when many stores were closed due to the pandemic. But increases returned to single digits by last fall and should remain there this year.

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However, volumes of about 2.2 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) or more expected during most months in the first half of 2022 will be near-records.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million TEU in November, down 4.5 percent from October but up 0.5 percent year-over-year. For December, Global Port Tracker projected shipments at 2.18 million TEU, up 3.7 percent year-over-year.

Those numbers would bring 2021 to a total of 25.9 million TEU, a 17.9 percent increase over 2020’s record high of 22 million TEU.

Global Port Tracker forecasts January cargo imports to be up 8.6 percent to 2.23 million TEU, February to grow 4.2 percent to 1.95 million TEU, March to decline 3.3 percent to 2.19 million TEU, April to pick up 2.5 percent to 2.2 million TEU and May to dip 0.5 percent to 0.5 percent.

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.