Cargo Imports Rise Again in August as Retailers Brace for Holiday Season

Retail cargo imports are expected to hit another record high in August as retailers brace for the upcoming holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation’s monthly Global Port Tracker report.
cargo load

Cargo imports have been at an all-time high over the past several months, as retail sales recovered from 2020 lows and supply chain disruptions continued to hamper the industry. Back-to-school shopping was also expected to reach a record this year, underscoring the huge demand from consumers this year. 

Experts from NRF and Hackett Associates, which compiles the  Global Port Tracker report for NRF, expect retail demand will continue to outpace supply chain operations as the retail industry heads into the holiday months.

“Back-to-school supplies have been hit by the same supply chain disruptions and port congestion that have affected other products this year, but retailers are working hard to ensure that school and college goods are where they need to be,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Strong consumer demand has outpaced supply chain operations since late last year and could remain a challenge as the holidays approach.”

A number of factors have also led to constraints on the supply chain, including a labor shortage and other COVID-19 disruptions.

“The continuing lack of labor, equipment and capacity has highlighted systemic issues and the need to create a truly 21st-century supply chain to ensure resiliency against the next major disruption,” Gold said. “Passage of infrastructure legislation currently pending in Congress is a key step in that direction. We need continued focus by the administration to help address these issues as well.”

U.S ports handled 2.15 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in June, down 7.8% from May, but up 33.7% from the same month in 2020. While July figures are not yet finalized, the Global Port Tracker projected 2.22 million TEU—up 15.7% from the same time last year. August is also projected to reach 2.37 million TEU, which would top May’s record as the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002 at 2.33 million TEU.

August is expected to reach a new record because retailers began stocking up on holiday inventory during the month. With delays and other supply chain challenges, more retailers are also moving up their shipments earlier, according to NRF.

“The strain of the continuing economic expansion is putting considerable pressure on the logistics supply chain,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “We’re seeing a lack of shipping capacity combined with port congestion as vessels line up to discharge goods from both Asia and Europe. Delays are stretching to landside as port terminals struggle with space shortages, and labor challenges are affecting ports, railroads and trucking companies alike. This part of the recovery is not a pretty sight.”

After August, demand at ports is likely to slacken somewhat, with a September forecast of 2.21 million TEU. October may reach 2.15 million TEU, down 3% for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020. November and December will also likely report declines from 2020, according to predictions.