The Port of Charleston continued to defy national trends in October with its third-busiest month on record and a double-digit increase in imports at a time when most ports are seeing a slowdown, according to statistics released on Nov. 15.
The State Ports Authority said it moved 256,879 20-foot containers through its terminals last month — slightly less than the all-time record levels seen in March and April.
Loaded import boxes accounted for nearly half of the total, or 121,305 containers. That's a nearly 12.6 percent increase over last year and it came despite reports that retailers have drastically limited holiday imports because their shelves are already full.
Barbara Melvin, the SPA's president and CEO, said Charleston's maritime industry "seamlessly handled record cargo volumes in October," adding the port was the only East Coast site that didn't experience a backlog of ships anchored offshore while waiting for berth space.
The port hit a berthing milestone Nov. 4 by docking three 1,200-foot-long containerships at the same time at the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.
“We continue to efficiently move cargo for our longtime customers — including many automotive manufacturers — while attracting new business and investment from cold storage facilities, solar panel importers, furniture distribution centers, mega retailers and e-commerce sites," Melvin said in a written statement.
The National Retail Federation last week predicted an 8.5 percent drop in imports nationwide for October due to flattening consumer demand, and other ports — mostly on the West Coast — have seen a marked slowdown in recent months. Imports in Los Angeles, for example, dropped more than 26.6 percent in September and Long Beach notched a 23.7 percent drop last month.
"Carriers have begun to pull services and are looking at laying up some ships," maritime analyst Ben Hackett said of the national import outlook.
John McCown, who tracks container movements through U.S. ports each month in The McCown Report, said the disparity in cargo volumes at Charleston versus other places is largely due to its structure as an owner-operator rather than a landlord that leases its terminals to outside companies.
The SPA's business model "invariably requires more and better management with significant operating experience," he said. "Such management has better insight into the success factors, leading to initiatives calling for new terminals and dredging where Charleston has been at the forefront. Better management usually leads to better results, and you can consistently see that in comparisons involving Charleston."
McCown said Charleston also benefits from an ongoing trend of cargo moving away from the West Coast and toward East and Gulf Coast ports because of lower costs and less congestion. It's also close to the fast-growing Southeast population base.
"All of these factors are known to management, and operating ports are consistently better marketers of whatever advantages they have to shippers, carriers and other decision makers," he said.
All told, the number of cargo containers moving through Charleston's terminals increased by 9.35 percent from a year ago. While loaded exports fell by nearly 7 percent, the number of empties exported to foreign markets was up 30 percent as overseas manufacturers looked to reposition the number of available containers.
Wando Welch continued to be the SPA's workhorse, accounting for 71 percent of all cargo moves.
The North Charleston Terminal followed with 20 percent of the volume with the roughly 18-month-old Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston handling the remaining 9 percent.
Nearly 17,000 vehicles — mostly BMWs built at the German automaker's Upstate plant — were exported from Columbus Street Terminal on the Charleston peninsula.
Also, slightly more than 24,400 cruise ship passengers passed through Union Pier Terminal in the city's Historic District in October.