The latest Global Port Tracker report, jointly released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, suggests that the US’s major container ports are on track to reach a significant milestone in import cargo volume.

The report forecasts that this high import activity will persist into October. These statistics reflect the optimism of retailers as they gear up for the upcoming holiday season, signalling confidence in consumer demand.

NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold, explained the significance of these figures: “The holiday season is now the top priority for everyone in the retail supply chain as merchants prepare for the rush of shoppers who will soon be buying gifts for friends and family. As the holidays approach, the recent ratification of the West Coast port labour agreement between the ILWU and PMA provides supply chain stability and certainty for retailers utilising the West Coast ports.”

Key findings from the Global Port Tracker report

  • In July, US ports handled 1.91 million TEU, reflecting a 4.4% increase from June, but marked a 12.4% decline in comparison to the same month the previous year.
  • August numbers are yet to be reported by ports, but is projected to reach 2 million TEU, which, while down 11.4% year over year, would be the first time since October 2022 that the 2 million mark has been achieved.
  • September and October projections remain steady at 2 million TEU each, potentially forming a three-month streak.
  • November is forecasted to reach 1.96 million TEU, reflecting a 10.4% year-over-year increase.
  • December is expected to reach 1.94 million TEU, indicating a 12% year-over-year rise.
  • 2023 is expected to culminate with 22.3 million TEU, which represents a 12.5% decline from the previous year.
  • The forecast for January 2024 is optimistic, with 1.91 million TEU expected, marking a 5.4% increase to kickstart the new year.

The situation in the Panama Canal, which imposed restrictions on the maximum draft of ships due to drought conditions this summer, has not posed the threat that some had initially feared said the NRF.

Many ships, faced with less-than-capacity loads or empty containers, have managed to adhere to the restriction. According to Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, ships awaiting passage through the Panama Canal as of mid-August were expected to complete their voyages without undue delay.

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Hackett expressed his observations: “We have closely followed conditions at the Panama Canal. It now appears, however, that the situation has had little impact on the retail supply chain and is unlikely to be a problem as we head into the peak shipping season.”

Concerns began rising in June regarding the ongoing US port labour disputes and their potential impact on the upcoming holiday season.

In July, the West Coast Ports resolution brought some relief to retailers but the ongoing strikes at the Vancouver and Prince Rupert ports in Canada impacted retailers and havd a ripple effect on other ports.