With most holiday merchandise on retailers’ shelves or in warehouses for the season, December cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is forecasted to be below record levels set earlier this year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker* report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Retailers are in the middle of the annual holiday frenzy, but ports are headed into their winter lull after one of the busiest and most challenging years we’ve ever seen,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “We’ve dodged a rail strike, and the retail supply chain should be able to easily handle the remaining weeks of the holiday season. But it’s time to settle on a labor contract for West Coast ports and address other supply chain issues that remain, so the lull doesn’t become the calm before the storm.”

President Biden, in early December, signed legislation imposing a labor agreement on freight railroads and unions, averting a potential strike that could have come this week. But members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are working without a contract since the previous agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association expired on July 1.
Concerns about potential West Coast disruption led retailers to ship cargo early this spring, prompting a shift to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports that have seen record volume.

This spring, monthly cargo numbers repeatedly broke previous records before hitting a record high of 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU)—one 20-foot container or its equivalent—in May. But volume fell short, and Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said current lower imports result from retailers balancing inventory built up earlier against slowing consumer demand and expectations for 2023.

“Key indicators point the way to a robust economy,” Hackett said, referring to recent increases in retail sales, employment and gross domestic product despite high inflation and interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. “Yet the volume of imported container cargo at the ports we cover has declined, and the next six months will see further declines to a level not seen for some time.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled two million TEUs in October, the latest month the final numbers are available, down 1.3 percent from September and 9.3 percent from October 2021.

Ports have not reported their November numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.85 million TEU, down 12.3 percent year-over-year, the lowest since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021. December is forecasted at 1.94 million TEU, down 7.2 percent year-over-year.
Those numbers would bring 2022 to 25.81 million TEU, down 0.1 percent from last year’s annual record of 25.84 million TEU.

January 2023 is forecast at 1.97 million TEU, down 8.8 percent from January 2022. February is forecasted at 1.67 million TEU, the lowest since 1.61 million TEU in June 2020 and a 20.9 percent drop from last year, when cargo congested busy ports. March is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, down 18.6 percent year-over-year, and April is forecasted at 1.95 million, down 13.8 percent.

*Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

Photo courtesy Port of Los Angeles