Frustrated retailers set to increase prices, blaming delays at Ports of Auckland

Retailers are warning price hikes loom, with shops unable to restock their shelves due to ongoing disruptions at the border and abroad. 

The brief three-day level 3 lockdown in Auckland didn't help, but the main cause is Ports of Auckland's (POA) understaffing, Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford says.

"There's been a little bit of disruption overseas with production, there's disruption at ports of origin up in Asia primarily, and there's less freight coming down to New Zealand," he told The AM Show on Thursday.

"But the biggest problem - and the one we can control - is that there's real congestion at the Ports of Auckland. They don't seem to have enough people to run all the cranes that they need to get product off the ships."

POA's latest operational updates suggest it's running at capacity, with "very high" container volumes. "Freyberg, Jellicoe, Bledisloe and Cook berths are at 100 percent utilisation," POA reported on Wednesday.

The average 'dwell time' - the length of time it takes a ship to arrive and successfully unload its cargo - has been above average lately, ballooning out to 3.7 days in December and January, well above the norm of 2.2 days. Exports have taken as long as 6.8 days, while the average is just four.

"We're hearing that there's ships that are lining up in the harbour, they're there for several days," said Harford.

"Some we've heard have turned around and headed back to Australia - they're not able to wait to offload." 

This is pushing up import costs by up to 200 percent, Harford claimed.

"It's going to drive inflation, it's going to put the price of goods up. We don't have a good sense of when that's likely to kick in, but I think over the next few months we are going to see the price of goods creeping up." 

A spokesperson for POA said Harford had "got the wrong end of the stick on some of this", saying claims ships were leaving Auckland without offloading had "never happened".

Matt Ball told Newshub while there is a congestion charge of up to US$200 per container, the increased cost is "not enough to impact prices on shelves".

"The real cause of increased costs here in New Zealand is the massive increase in import freight rates and peak season surcharges which have increased hundreds of percent. This is a global issue."

A few weeks ago, the Maritime Union said POA "cut back on staff due to misplaced over-confidence in automation", and have been short-staffed ever since. POA denied this, saying no changes to staffing levels as a result of automation had been made yet. 

Ball said the POA is "addressing our labour shortage through recruitment and training and are making steady progress".

Harford says New Zealand's a small market without a lot of leverage, and the issues at the port aren't helping.

"The brutal reality is some suppliers are sitting there overseas, they're looking at a big order from a market where there's good access to get that freight in, and they're looking at a small order from New Zealand and saying, 'Well, we're going to prioritise those other markets.'"