Inbound cargo volume at the major container ports in the U.S. will continue to slow during the final weeks of 2023 after peaking later than expected in the fall, according to the Global Port Tracker* report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates.

“We originally thought peak season would come in August, but imports kept growing in September and again in October,” the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Whether it was merchandise for retailers or cargo for other businesses, that’s a good sign for the economy and the holiday shopping season. The NRF expects record-setting holiday sales this year, and retailers are well-stocked to meet consumer demand.”

The NRF forecasted that 2023 holiday sales would increase between 3 percent and 4 percent over 2022, in line with pre-pandemic growth rates, and would hit a record total between $957.3 billion and $966.6 billion.

“The U.S. economy appears to be on a sustainable growth path as consumer demand remains buoyant,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said, noting solid Black Friday weekend sales, strong corporate profits and continued gross domestic product growth. “It would be natural to assume that any thought of a recession is behind us, but a significant number of economists and politicians remain skeptical. As always, time will tell.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled a higher-than-expected 2.05 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units, one 20-foot container or its equivalent, in October, the latest month for which final numbers were available—up 1.3 percent from September and up 2.5 percent from October 2022 for the first year-over-year increase since June 2022.

By topping September’s 2.03 million TEU, October should be the peak of the holiday shipping season. With 1.96 million TEU, August was originally expected to be the peak month. Historically, the peak comes in October but has occurred in August or sooner for seven of the past ten years after a series of port labor disputes prompted retailers to bring merchandise into the U.S. early to avoid potential disruptions near the holidays, with 2020 the most recent year that shipping peaked in October.

Ports have not reported November numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.96 million TEU, up 10.5 percent year-over-year. December is forecasted at 1.93 million TEU, up 11.5 percent year-over-year. Those numbers would bring 2023 to 22.4 million TEU, down 12.4 percent from last year.

Imports during 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2 percent from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

Year-over-year volume growth each month is expected to continue in 2024, with January forecast at 1.93 million TEU, up 6.6 percent year over year. February, historically the slowest month because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia, is forecasted at 1.77 million TEU, up 14.5 percent year-over-year. March is forecasted at 1.75 million TEU, up 7.7 percent year-over-year and April at 1.8 million TEU, up 1 percent.

*Global Port Tracker, 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 Charleston