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Pandemic-Fueled Shipping Surge Is Over, NRF Says

The National Retail Federation (NRF) declared on Monday that the “pandemic-driven shipping surge is finally over,” as monthly import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports has fallen well below last year’s high and is expected to remain there through most of this spring.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report released today by the NRF and Hackett Associates, U.S. ports handled 1.78 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in November, the latest month for which final numbers are available.

November’s numbers were down 11.3% from October and down 15.8% from November 2021, according to the report. It was the lowest month since February 2021, which had been the only month in over two years to fall below 2 million TEU.

Ports have not yet reported December numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.88 million TEU, down 10.1% year-over-year. That would bring 2022 – which repeatedly broke monthly records in the first half of the year but saw significant drops in the second half – to an annual total of 25.7 million TEU, down 0.7% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

Jonathan Gold, VP of supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said in a statement that U.S. ports have been “stretched to their limits and beyond” but are finally getting a break as consumer demand moderates amid continued inflation and high interest rates.

“Consumers are still spending, and volumes remain high, but we’re not seeing the congestion at the docks and ships waiting to unload that were widespread this time a year ago,” Gold said. “It’s good to escape some of the pressure, but it’s important to use this time to address supply chain challenges that still need to be resolved like finalizing the West Coast port labor contract.”

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, added in a statement that import patterns “appear” to be returning to what was normal prior to 2020 after nearly three years of COVID-19’s impact on global trade and consumer demand. “Nonetheless, as inflation eases and consumer spending returns, we project that growth will slowly return going into the second half of the year,” he said.

Despite the slowdown in cargo, retail sales are on track to meet NRF’s forecast of 6% to 8% growth over 2021 for both the full year and the holiday season when December’s sales numbers are released next week.

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