Last year's peak import container season peaked in August; this year it looks like it was October.  -  Source: Global Port Tracker

Last year's peak import container season peaked in August; this year it looks like it was October.

Source: Global Port Tracker

“Peak season” for imports at major U.S. container ports arrived later than expected this year, which is a good sign for the economy, according to the Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“We originally thought peak season would come in August, but imports kept growing in September and again in October,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold.

“Whether it was merchandise for retailers or cargo for other businesses, that’s a good sign for the economy and for the holiday shopping season. NRF expects record-setting holiday sales this year and retailers are well-stocked to meet consumer demand.”

NRF is forecasting that 2023 holiday sales will increase between 3% and 4% over last year, in line with pre-pandemic growth rates, and will hit a record-setting total between $957.3 billion and $966.6 billion.

“The U.S. economy appears to be on a sustainable growth path as consumer demand remains buoyant,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said, noting solid Black Friday weekend sales, strong corporate profits and continued growth of gross domestic product.

“It would be natural to assume that any thought of a recession is behind us, but a significant number of economists and politicians remain skeptical. As always, time will tell.”

The report still projects that overall numbers for 2023 will be down 12.4% from last year.

October Peak for Import Containers

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled a higher-than-expected 2.05 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units — one 20-foot container or its equivalent — in October, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 1.3% from September and up 2.5% from October 2022 for the first year-over-year increase since June 2022.

By topping September’s 2.03 million TEU, October should turn out to be the peak of the holiday shipping season, according to the report.

With 1.96 million TEU, August had originally been expected to be the peak month. The peak historically came in October, but it has occurred in August or sooner for seven of the past 10 years, after a series of port labor disputes prompted retailers to bring merchandise into the country early.

The report noted that 2020 was the most recent year that shipping peaked in October.

Cargo imports have come back down from a pandemic-driven high.  -  Source: Global Port Tracker

Cargo imports have come back down from a pandemic-driven high.

Source: Global Port Tracker

Cargo Import Forecasts

Ports have not yet reported November numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.96 million TEU, up 10.5% year over year.

December is forecast at 1.93 million TEU, up 11.5% year over year.

If those projections hold, it would bring 2023 to 22.4 million TEU, down 12.4% from last year. Imports during 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

Year-over-year volume growth each month is expected to continue in 2024:

  • January: 1.93 million TEU, up 6.6% year over year.
  • February: 1.77 million TEU, up 14.5% year over year. This is historically the slowest month because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia.
  • March: 1.75 million TEU, up 7.7% year over year.
  • April: 1.8 million TEU, up 1%.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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