A record number of ocean containers crossed the docks at the Port of Long Beach in March, further underscoring that there will be no slow season this year at U.S. ports. Earlier this week, the Port of Charleston reported record results for March.
The Long Beach port authority on Thursday said its terminals handled 840,387 twenty-foot equivalent units last month, surpassing the previous high of 815,885 TEUs set in December. March is normally one of the slowest months for maritime trade, as supply chains relax from order peaks associated with U.S. and Chinese holidays.
But Long Beach and other ports have been swamped with cargo for the past nine months as people stuck at home during COVID shop online at a record pace and companies try to replenish inventories depleted early in the pandemic when many factories in Asia were forced to close for quarantine reasons and carriers canceled many sailings.
The unprecedented surge of imports at container ports is expected to continue at least through the end of the summer, according to the National Retail Federation’s monthly Port Tracker report on Wednesday.
Demand was so strong in March that more than 30 container vessels were anchored outside the Southern California port complex on any given day waiting for a berth. COVID precautions and illnesses have limited the size of gangs that can work the vessels, contributing to the backlogs.
Long Beach’s imports grew 74% to 408,172 TEUs, while exports declined 3.9% year-over-year. The import volume is a record.
Total box volume soared 62% over March last year, the largest year-over-year increase for a single month in port history. Even comparing results to March 2019 to control for any one-time effects from COVID shutdowns in China, Long Beach container volumes still increased 52% from 552,821 TEUs. It is just the third time in 110 years that the port has processed more than 800,000 shipping units.
“We’ve never seen imports at this high a level for such an extended period of time,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy, in a statement. “Records have been broken multiple times and near-record numbers are happening almost every month. Between federal stimulus checks and money saved by staying home for the better part of a year, consumers have money in their pockets and they’re spending it with retailers as fast as retailers can stock their shelves.”
Nationwide, imports hit their lowest point in four years last March – 1.37 million TEUs as the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold. But cargo rebounded and hit a then-record 2.1 million TEU in August as the economy reopened, eventually peaking at 2.21 million TEU in October. Under the current forecast, volume is expected to remain at or above the 2 million TEU mark for 11 out of 13 months by this August. Before 2020, monthly imports had reached 2 million TEU only once, in October 2018.
Empty containers moved through Long Beach spiked 112.5% in March to 292,505 TEUs, reflecting the high import volumes and carrier focus on returning containers to origin as quickly as possible to load them with higher yielding import products.
Many U.S. exporters, especially in the agriculture sector, complain they are losing money because they can’t secure containers at inland points. But part of the problem is a shortage of containers that started when Chinese manufacturers temporarily shut down production for several weeks last year and retailers in the U.S. and Europe that held onto boxes to store inventory rather than recirculate them through the system. And it’s not clear yet that there has been a material drop in container availability for exports or whether export volumes are lower as a direct result of carrier activity, according to previous analysis by American Shipper.
The total number of empty containers, as well as outbound empty containers (270,016 TEUs) also were all-time highs for the port.
“Although the pandemic is receding, consumers are spending less on travel this year and turning toward online retail in unprecedented numbers to purchase exercise equipment, office furniture and home improvement items,” Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said in a statement. “The demand for e-commerce is happening more quickly than we anticipated, but we will continue to collaborate with our industry stakeholders to catch up with the unprecedented cargo volume at our gateway.”
Officials said many longshoremen have now received COVID vaccines and are able to take on more assignments and congestion is slowly receding, with the number of vessels parked offshore down to about 17 in recent days.
March’s numbers mark the ninth consecutive month that the Port of Long Beach has broken container volume records for a particular month.
During the first quarter, the port moved 2.38 million TEUs, a 41.2% jump from the same period a year ago. It was also the port’s best first quarter on record, breaking the previous record set during the first three months of 2018 by 481,251 units, and its second-best quarter overall, behind the fourth quarter of 2020.
The neighboring port of Los Angeles has yet to report figures for March.