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Imports Continue to Slow as Holiday Shopping Season Heats Up

Retailers expect a busy holiday season the next two months, but imports at the nation’s major container ports should continue to slow from records set earlier in the year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

According to the report, U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled a record 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in May, but volume has seen a mostly steady decline since then.

Ports processed 2.03 million TEU in September, the latest month for which final numbers are available, down 10.2% from August and down 4.9% from September 2021.

Ports have not yet reported October’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.02 million TEU, down 8.5% year-over-year. November is forecast at 1.92 million TEU, down 9.2% over last year and the lowest number since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021, the last time the monthly total fell below 2 million TEU. December is expected to drop to 1.9 million TEU, down 9% from last year.

Jonathan Gold, VP of supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said in a statement that with a rail strike possible this month, there are still challenges in the supply chain, but the majority of holiday merchandise is already on hand and retailers are “well prepared” to meet demand.

“Cargo levels that historically peak in the fall peaked in the spring this year as retailers concerned about port congestion, port and rail labor negotiations and other supply chain issues stocked up far in advance of the holidays,” Gold added.

While consumers are still buying more, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said demand has fallen from peak consumption during the height of the pandemic.

“We expect the flattening of demand that began around the middle of this year to continue into the first half of 2023,” Hackett said. “This will depress the volume of imports, which has already declined in recent months. Carriers have begun to pull services and are looking at laying up ships.”

The cargo data comes as NRF forecasts that 2022 holiday retail sales will grow between 6% and 8% over 2021 to between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion.

Online and non-store sales this holiday season are expected to grow between 10% and 12%, though consumers are largely expected to shift back to in-store shopping this year, the NRF said.

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