Container Lead Times to the US East Coast Rise Prior to the Holidays

The Panama Canal Faces Shipping Challenges Amid Drought Conditions

The Panama Canal serves as a vital route for importing goods into the United States via East Coast ports. However, persistent drought conditions in the region have prompted sanctions on the canal’s operations, leading to restrictions on the number of vessels that can pass through daily. Beginning in August, these restrictions reduced the daily vessel allowance from 36 to 32. This results in more than 120 fewer vessels transiting the canal each month, causing increased dwell times for ships attempting to navigate the canal and extending the overall lead time to the US East Coast. This, in turn, poses challenges for major retailers gearing up for the upcoming holiday season.

Vessel Congestion Surrounds the Canal

Since the capacity reduction was announced, there has been a noticeable buildup of container vessels waiting on both sides of the canal for their turn to pass through. The chart below depicts the number of vessels awaiting passage as of the morning of October 11th, 2023.

Extended Lead Time from China to the US East Coast

Initially, the canal restrictions did not have an immediate impact on the overall container lead time. However, as vessels contend with increased wait times to cross the canal, we are now observing a trickle-down effect on the overall lead time. Since early August, the median lead time for shipments from China to the US East Coast has surged by over four days, signifying almost a 10% increase in the time it takes for goods to travel from China to the United States’ East Coast. This situation may prompt retailers to expedite time-sensitive shipments, resulting in elevated shipping costs and an increased risk of stockouts.

Outlook and Recommendations

The Panama Canal continues to present challenges for global supply chains, with no relief in sight. With the holiday season approaching, it is advisable for retailers to plan for these delays as early as possible to help minimize their impact on costs. As for consumers, it is in their best interest to start their holiday shopping earlier to ensure that potential inventory shortages do not disrupt their festive season.

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