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Economists say subdued activity on the docks is a sign of how retailers are slimming down their supply chains as more of their customers shop online. Companies such as Target Corp., Lowe's Cos. and J.C. Penney Inc. are pivoting away from maintaining stores brimming with merchandise. Instead, they are housing more goods in warehouses where they can quickly ship to stores or fulfill online orders.
It is a shift that has caught the transportation sector off guard. Ports from New York to Georgia to California have spent billions of dollars to upgrade equipment and deepen harbors to handle an expected flood of imports that has yet to materialize. Shipping lines are scrapping vessels and cutting back service on unprofitable routes. Trucking companies bought tens of thousands of new big rigs as recently as 2015, many of which sit idle today.
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