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Why US Ports Keep Breaking Cargo Imports Records

Cargo imports at major U.S. container ports for retail goods set a new record this spring and are expected to see near-record volume for May as merchants bring in merchandise to beat rising costs and supply chain issues, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Retailers are importing record amounts of merchandise to meet consumer demand, but they also have an incentive to stock up before inflation can drive costs higher,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and custom policy at NRF. “Whether it’s freight costs or the wholesale cost of merchandise, money retailers save is money that can be used to hold down prices for their customers during a time of inflation. In addition, retailers are preparing for any potential disruptions because of the West Coast port labor negotiations, which are set to begin next week.”

Gold noted that NRF has encouraged the parties to remain at the table and not engage in disruptions if a new contract is not reached by the time the current agreement expires July 1.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.34 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) in March, up 10.8 percent from February and 3.2 percent year over year. This topped the previous record of 2.33 million TEU set in May 2021 for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

Ports have not yet reported April numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.27 million TEU, an increase of 5.7 percent a year earlier. May is forecast at 2.3 million TEU, which would be down 1.4 percent from last year but still the third-highest level on record.

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“Consumer spending is growing faster than income growth, perhaps as shoppers buy ahead of expected rising prices,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Importers are doing much the same as they continue to replenish their inventories. Doing so will protect them against potentially rising freight costs, further delays in the supply chain and complications in upcoming labor negotiations at U.S. West Coast ports.”

June container imports are forecast to rise 6.6 percent year over year to 2.29 million TEU, with July seen rising 5.3 percent to 2.31 million TEU, August to be up 0.9 percent to 2.29 million TEU and September to increase 0.3 percent to 2.15 million TEU.

The first six months of 2022 are expected to total 13.5 million TEU, up 5.1 percent year over year.

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.