According to the Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to drop to nearly its lowest level this month since the beginning of the pandemic.

“With the U.S. economy slowing, and consumers worried by rising interest rates and still-high inflation, retailers are importing less merchandise,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “February is traditionally a slow month, but these are the lowest numbers we’ve seen in almost three years. Retailers are being cautious as they wait to see how the economy responds to efforts to bring inflation under control.”

“In some ways, 2023 is reminiscent of 2020, when the world’s economies shut down because of the pandemic, and no one had a clue where we were headed,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “Cargo volumes are down, and the economy is in a contradiction of rising employment and wages that promise prosperity. At the same time, high inflation and rising interest rates threaten a recession. The economy is far from shut down, but the degree of uncertainty is very similar.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.73 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU)—one 20-foot container or its equivalent—in December, the latest month final numbers are available, down 2.6 percent from November and down 17.1 percent from December 2021, bringing 2022, which broke multiple monthly records in the first half of the year but saw significant drops in the second half, to an annual total of 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2 percent from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

Ports have not reported January numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.78 million TEU, down 17.6 percent year-over-year. February is forecast at 1.57 million TEU, down 25.6 percent from the same month last year for the slowest month since 1.53 million TEU in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed by the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, only 1.51 million TEU were recorded in February 2020, and 1.37 million TEU in March 2020 were lower.

March is forecast at 1.76 million TEU, down 24.8 percent year-over-year, April at 1.87 million TEU, down 17.3 percent, and May at 1.92 million TEU, down 19.9 percent. June is forecast at 2 million TEU; the first time imports are expected to be that high since October but down 11.3 percent from last June. Those numbers would bring the first half of 2023 to 10.9 million TEU, down 19.4 percent from the first half of 2022.