Retail Container Traffic Up 11 Percent in October

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to be up 11% in October over the same month last year and should continue to see strong year-over-year growth even as seasonal levels wind down through the remainder of 2010, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Cargo is still coming through but retailers are mostly stocked up for the holiday season,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Retailers aren’t going to say the recession is behind them until their customers tell them it is, but we are hoping to see some sustainable economic growth over the next several weeks. The goal is that inventory levels will match sales as closely as possible.”

U.S. ports handled 1.42 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in August, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 3% from July and 23% from August 2009. It was the ninth month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December 2009 broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

While October has long been the busiest month of the year as retailers rush to fill shelves with merchandise for the holiday season, the peak shifted to August this year. The change came both because of a backlog in cargo from earlier in the year after ocean carriers were slow to replace vessels taken out of service during the recession, and because retailers brought merchandise into the country early to avoid the risk of delays this fall.

September was estimated at 1.37 million TEU, a 20% increase over last year. October is forecast at 1.32 million TEU, up 11% from last year; November at 1.21 million TEU, also up 11%; and December at 1.12 million TEU, up 3%. January 2011 is forecast at 1.09 million TEU, up 8% from January 2010, and February 2011 at 992,848 TEU, down 1% from February 2010.

The first half of 2010 totaled 6.9 million TEU, up 17% from the same period last year. The full year is forecast at 14.7 million TEU, which would be up 16% from the 12.7 million TEU in 2009, which was the lowest since the 12.5 million TEU reported in 2003. The 2010 number remains below the 15.2 million TEU seen in 2008 and the peak of 16.5 million TEU seen in 2007.

“Trade, particularly imports, is a strong indicator that recovery is sustainable,” says Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “We continue to expect the fourth quarter to be seasonally weak, perhaps slightly more so than in the past because the peak has shifted to an earlier month, but it will nonetheless have been a good year.”

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