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Tom’s Takes: How Excess Inventory and Panama Canal Backlog are Disrupting Retailers in the Q4 Holiday Season – A Focus on Global Transportation


Volume 2, Issue 6

In this issue of Tom’s Takes, we look at two global shipping transportation issues that will affect the all-important U.S. Q4 holiday season.

Late last week, CNBC reported on the effect of container ships waiting in Asian ports due to excess inventory levels within retailer’s global supply chains. Thirteen container ship sailings were “blanked” between Asia and Europe in July, with the apparel and electronics industries mentioned as key industries with high excess inventory levels, causing the cancellations. 

In May, the investment firm Bernstein reported that U.S., retailers were holding nearly $800 billion in inventory, the highest since May of 2019.

Also in August, news stories began popping up about droughts in Panama and the low water levels within the Panama Canal system region. With the water levels near their minimum needed for shipping, canal officials have reduced the daily number of ships allowed to transit the canal to 32, down from a count of 36 to 38, with weight limits also imposed on shippers.

Transit time through the canal is typically 2.5 days, but the restrictions have added an additional seven days to the transit time, meaning a 9.5-day trip. With ships waiting in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to make the crossing through the canal, initial estimates point to a 10-month duration to clear the backup.

Nearly 40 percent of all U.S. container traffic transits the canal and approximately two of every three ships in the canal are headed to the U.S. or coming from the U.S. Any slowdown in shipping and inbound container movement from Asia or through the Panama Canal will affect future inventories.

Tom’s Take – “Ocean transportation is the backbone of moving goods from Asian manufacturing hubs to consumers throughout the world. Excess inventories built up by retailers over the past few years due to increased demand that began during the pandemic are now beginning to wane, causing retailers to focus on how to flush outdated or obsolescent inventory, like electronics and fast fashion.

The Panama Canal backlog will likely impact distributors, manufacturers and retailers for the rest of 2023 and into 2024. The summer period is the peak timeframe for all companies to ramp up their inventories as they prepare for the Q4 holiday season. Product availability and higher pricing may be affected at the regional and national levels within the U.S. due to lower inventory levels and in some cases, product out-of-stock issues.”

Learn how enVista can help address key supply chain challenges, such as labor, inventory and growth. Let’s have a conversation.®

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