August U.S. Port Traffic Forecast Shows Continued Strong Growth

port, ports, NRF
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Products from overseas continue rolling into U.S. ports as import levels are expected to hit another record in August as consumer demand for items remains strong.

While retailers over the past few weeks have been focused on back-to-school and back-to-campus products, they will soon shift their focus to preparations for the holiday season. Items for the fourth quarter are now rolling into the nation’s largest entry points and will soon find their way to the distribution centers of retailers.

“Strong consumer demand has outpaced supply chain operations since late last year and could remain a challenge as the holidays approach,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of Supply Chain and Customs Policy for the National Retail Federation (NRF). “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.”

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U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker handled 2.15 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in June, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 7.8% from May but up 33.7% from a year earlier when many stores were closed because of the pandemic. 

A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

“The strain of the continuing economic expansion is putting considerable pressure on the logistics supply chain,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hacket 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.”

August is forecast at 2.37 million TEU, which would be up 12.6% year-over-year and top May’s 2.33 million TEU for the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. 

August is the beginning of the “peak season” when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise each year. Many retailers are moving up their shipments this year as part of their risk mitigation strategies to ensure that sufficient inventory will be available during the holidays.

September is forecast at 2.21 million TEU, up 4.9% year-over-year; October at 2.15 million TEU, down 3% for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020; November at 2.07 million TEU, down 1.5%, and December at 2.02 million TEU, down 4.1%.

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6% from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 25.9 million TEU, up 17.5% over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9% over 2019 despite the pandemic.