As Retail Imports Slow, Ports Unclog Backlog

Retail imports have been backlogged amid a surge in demand and supply chain constraints over the past few years.
ports cargo

The nation’s largest ports have begun to catch up with the backlog as of late, thanks to a slowdown in retail imports, according to the Global Port Tracker from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

However, the slowdown likely won’t last, according to NRF, which expects summer demand to pick back up. U.S. ports handled 2.11 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU)—one 20-foot container or its equivalent—in February. That’s down 2.3% from January, but up 13% year-over-year.

“As we entered 2022, the biggest question was when the supply chain would return to normal,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have a definitive answer. Congestion at West Coast ports has eased, but congestion at some East Coast ports is growing. Ports aren’t as overwhelmed as they were a year ago, but they are still significantly busy moving near-record volumes of cargo.”

Import volumes were still high during February despite slowdowns and closures in Asia during the Lunar New Year holiday, as ships in the U.S. were waiting to be unloaded. In addition, new lockdown measures abroad have delayed imports. Once operations return to normal in China, port congestion could return with an influx of vessels arriving in the U.S.

“With West Coast ports still congested, there were still plenty of containers to be unloaded,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in a statement. 

For March, ports are projected to have handled 2.27 million TEU, unchanged from the same month last year. April is forecast at 2.13 million TEU, down 1.1% from the same month in 2021, and May at 2.21 million TEU, down 5.3% last year. 

By summer, imports are expected to increase once again. In particular, NRF expects August to reach 2.35 million TEU, which would be a 3.3% year-over-year increase and a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. The current record is 2.33 million TEU in May 2021.