Retail Container Traffic Improved 17% in 2010

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to be up 9% in December over the same month last year, and 2010 should end with a 17% increase over last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The nation’s improving economy has been reflected in the amount of merchandise imported by retailers this year,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “We haven’t fully recovered from the recession, and we still need more job creation to get consumer confidence back where it should be. But import levels have seen solid increases throughout the year and we expect that to continue in 2011. Cargo volume doesn’t translate directly to sales, but these trends are certainly in line with what we’ve experienced with monthly retail sales and this year’s holiday season.”

U.S. ports handled 1.34 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in October, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was unchanged from September but up 13% from October 2009. It was the 11th 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.

November was estimated at 1.25 million TEUs, a 15% increase over last year. December is forecast at 1.18 million TEUs, up 9% from last year. January 2011 is forecast at 1.16 million TEUs, up 8% from January 2010. February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.1 million TEUs, up 10% from last year, while March is forecast at 1.14 million TEUs, up 6%, and April is forecast at 1.18 million TEUs, up 4%.

The first half of 2010 totaled 6.9 million TEUs, up 17% from the same period last year. The full year is forecast at 14.6 million TEUs, which would be up 17% from the 12.7 million TEUs seen in 2009, which was the lowest since the 12.5 million TEUs reported in 2003. The 2010 number remains below the 15.2 million TEUs seen in 2008 and the peak of 16.5 million TEUs seen in 2007.

NRF is revising its forecast for sales during the November-December holiday season to grow 3.3% over last year, up from the 2.3% forecast issued earlier. The improved outlook comes after a strong start to the holiday season, and is based on a variety of economic factors, including stock market gains, recent income growth and savings built up during the recession that are all giving consumers the capacity to spend.

As volume increases in 2011, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett says retailers could see higher costs from “slow steaming,” a practice of operating ships more slowly instituted by ocean carriers for both environmental and economic reasons. “Shippers have not benefitted from slow steaming,” Hackett says. “The increased round-trip voyage time has a direct impact on the time cost of goods. As a result, costs have gone up along the whole supply chain with increased inventory and transportation costs.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Long Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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