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NRF: U.S. Container Imports Show Retailers’ Optimism for Holiday Season

Import cargo volume at major US container ports is expected to reach 2 million TEUs in September and October, signaling retailers’ optimism for the upcoming holiday season, according to the Global Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

If the forecast holds, it mean U.S. container imports will hit the 2 million TEU-mark three months in a row. 

The report highlights ratification of the West Coast port labor agreement between the ILWU and PMA as providing supply chain stability and certainty for retailers, while the Panama Canal’s restrictions on maximum draft of ships has had little impact on the retail supply chain.

“These are strong numbers and a sign retailers are optimistic about the holiday season since they don’t import merchandise unless they think they can sell it,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold.

Despite a restriction on the maximum draft of ships passing through the Panama Canal, lower water levels have not posed the threat that some had feared.

“We have closely followed conditions at the Panama Canal. It now appears, however, that the situation has had little impact on the retail supply chain and is unlikely to be a problem as we head into the peak shipping season,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett.

In July, U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.91 million TEU, up 4.4% from June but down 12.4% YoY.

Global Port Tracker projects August 2022 at 2 million TEU, down 11.4% YoY, but the first month since October 2022 to reach the 2 million mark. September and October are also forecast at 2 million TEU each, potentially creating a three-month streak. November is forecast at 1.96 million TEU, up 10.4% YoY, and December at 1.94 million TEU, up 12% YoY.

These numbers would bring 2023’s import total to 22.3 million TEU, down 12.5% from last year’s 25.5 million TEU, which was 1.2% below the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021. 

In January 2024, the NRF is forecasting 1.91 million TEU, which would be a 5.4% increase from this past January.