Retail Imports Stifled by Port Congestion

Retail imports have continued to remain near all-time highs, but port congestion in the U.S.’s busiest ports are stifling higher increases.
Shipping containers

Cargo ships are backed up in California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles waiting for room to unload their cargo. And those backups are likely to result in a slight dip from last year’s unusually high numbers, according to the latest monthly Global Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“The cargo is there for larger gains at several ports, but congestion issues are impacting fluid operations,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Ships will eventually get unloaded, but the pressure is on for everyone to work together to get the containers out as quickly as possible. Retailers are doing whatever it takes to make sure shelves are well-stocked for the holidays, from bringing in merchandise earlier to chartering their own ships. Consumers should be able to find what they need, but it’s always safer to shop early than wait until the last minute.”

The port delays come just ahead of the 2021 holiday shopping season, when retailers are bringing in the highest levels of imports. Rising COVID-19 infections in Asia has also slowed the loading of U.S.-bound ships. Compounding the import back-ups are shortages of equipment, labor, and outbound truck and rail capacity. 

Nearly 75 ships were awaiting dockage at California ports this week, up from 25 a month prior, NRF said. Backups are also spreading to East Coast ports.

“Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse with the logistics supply chain, we’ve been proven wrong,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “From power outages and port shutdowns in Asia to backed-up ships and shortages of truck drivers in the United States, there are few positive signs that the movement of consumer goods or the supply of inputs needed for industrial production is getting better.”

In August, U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.27 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), up 3.5% from July and 7.8% from a year prior. August 2021 was tied with March as the second-busiest month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. May takes the cake as the busiest month ever, with 2.33 million TEU reported. 

October is forecasted to reach 2.21 million TEU, down 0.3% from a year prior, when imports were surging after temporary shutdowns. The year-over-year decline is also the first since July 2022. Despite the dip, October’s projection will make it the sixth busiest month on record. November is predicted to hit 2.16 million TEU, which would be up 2.9 percent year-over-year, and December is forecast at 2.1 million TEU, down 0.2 percent, NRF reported. 

“For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 26 million TEU, up 18.1 percent over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million TEU,” NRF reported. “Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.”


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