Containerized Imports Headed for a Record in the United States

With the economy zipping along at a nice pace, consumers are out there spending their money, as seen in the number of cargo containers that are landing at the nation’s major ports.

The Port of Los Angeles is one example of a busy port that has slogged its way back after it saw its cargo volumes dive in 2008 and 2009.

In July, the port saw its total container traffic jump nearly 16 percent to 796,804 cargo containers passing through its docks compared to the same month last year. So far this year, total volume from January to July has mushroomed 9.5 percent to nearly 5.3 million containers, which includes inbound, outbound and empty boxes.

Ports around the country are equally as busy and may set an all-time record, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report recently issued by the National Retail Federation and prepared by Hackett Associates. Statistics show that import cargo container volumes are expected to reach a new annual record.

“Consumers are buying more, and retailers are scrambling to import more merchandise to keep up with the demand,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Docks have been busier than ever as ships unload cargo headed for store shelves, and that’s a good sign both for retail sales and the nation’s economy.”

The report showed that in July – the most recent month with full statistics – import container traffic totaled 1.78 million 20-foot containers, up 9.2 percent from July 2016. It was the highest monthly volume since the NRF began tracking imports in 2000 and beats the previous record set in March 2015 for 1.73 million containers.

However, August is expected to see a 0.1 percent dip from last year with an estimated 1.71 million containers, but it will still be one of the five highest months on record.

Import cargo container volumes for September are forecast to be 1.67 million containers, up 4.7 percent from last year; October at 1.7 million containers, up 2 percent; November at 1.61 million containers, down 2.3 percent; and December at 1.58 million containers, up 0.5 percent.

While Hurricane Harvey slowed Gulf Coast cargo in areas like Houston and Hurricane Irma is expected to do the same in Florida, neither is expected to significantly impact national totals.

Growth has slowed from the first half of the year, but major U.S. ports this year are expected to handle 19.7 million containers, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million containers, a 4.8 percent boost. That compares with 2016’s 3.1 percent increase over 2015. The first half of 2017 totaled 9.7 million containers, up 7.5 percent from the same period in 2016.

After the busy holiday season, a slowdown is expected for January 2018 with only 1.63 million containers coming in, down 2.6 percent from January 2017.

The NRF said the import numbers come as retail continues a long-term pattern of increased sales. Total retail sales have grown year-over-year every month since November 2009, and retail sales as calculated by NRF – excluding automobiles, gasoline stations and restaurants – have increased year-over-year in all but three months since the beginning of 2010.

Imports are marching along even though the NRF recently downsized its forecast for 2017 retail sales, predicting they would rise between 3.2 percent and 3.8 percent rather than the 3.7 percent to 4.2 percent that had been predicted earlier.

Despite the record imports, Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, cautioned that cargo volume increases are expected to slow in the coming year.

“2017 is turning out to be a bumper year, causing a sense that growth is unstoppable,” Hackett said. “Taking this view is risky, however. As we look forward, our models are projecting a slowdown. The positive takeaway is that this is a slowdown in growth, not an actual reduction in volume.”

West Coast imports are expected to grow only 0.3 percent during the first half of 2018 over the same period in 2017, Hackett said. On the East Coast, which has been gaining market share from the West Coast, volume should grow 1 percent.