Consumer demand is so strong that it has overwhelmed the capacity of the cargo industry, leading to a record spike in shipping rates. The surge in shipments is clogging many supply chains, snarling major ports and delaying delivery of holiday gifts by up to several weeks.
At the Port of Los Angeles, the country’s largest processor of container cargo and the gateway for many Chinese goods, shipping containers carrying Chinese imports are stacked like Legos in piles six high. Truckers jam the parking lots, waiting hours to pick up goods, which are then dispatched across the continent.
October was the busiest month in the port’s 114-year history, and traffic has remained high. On Dec. 1, dockworkers were busy unloading 19 vessels, compared with 10 to 12 on a normal day, said Gene Seroka, the port’s executive director. Twelve more ships waited in the harbor, which, on average, had been waiting about 48 hours beyond their scheduled arrival, he said.
“We’re going through a time that truly is unprecedented,” Mr. Seroka said. “You’re trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag. This ordering and replenishment is bigger than anything we’ve seen, and now it coincides with holidays.”
The pileup started earlier this year, as American retailers and manufacturers began to restock products this summer after brief lockdowns in the spring, and consumer spending began to rebound. While the pandemic has left former employees of restaurants, airlines and theme parks destitute, many members of the country’s vast remote work force have seen their bank accounts grow, and surveys show expectations for consumer spending remain strong.
The initial data snapshot of November trade released earlier this month by China’s General Administration of Customs did not include detailed data by product and country. But trade data for the first 10 months of this year, compiled from United States Customs data by IHS Markit, shows that American imports of consumer electronics from China have been strong, as have imports of masks and other personal protection equipment for the pandemic.
Jay Foreman, chief executive of the toy company Basic Fun!, said his company had gone from being “panicked” about the future of its business in March and April to suddenly realizing that demand was stronger than ever.