Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is continuing to wind down as the year comes to an end but is nonetheless expected to be up 9% in November over the same month last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“Retailers know shoppers still have the economy in mind, so they are being very mindful with inventory levels this year,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “The cargo numbers show that retailers are expecting a much better holiday season than they have seen over the past two years, but the industry is still being cautious.”
U.S. ports handled 1.34 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in September, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 6% from August but up 17% from September 2009. It was the 10th 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.
October was estimated at 1.29 million TEU, a 9% increase over last year. October is historically the busiest month of the year as retailers stock up for the holiday season, but the peak shifted to August this year as retailers brought merchandise into the country early to avoid a repeat of delays on the part of ocean carriers seen earlier this year.
November is forecast at 1.19 million TEU, up 9% from last year, and December at 1.1 million TEU, up 1%. January 2011 is forecast at 1.08 million TEU, up 7% from 2010. But February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.06 million TEU, down 5% from last year, and March is forecast at 1.04 million TEU, down 10%. Numbers beyond March have not yet been calculated, but a solid recovery is expected in the second and third quarters of 2011 after the usual winter slowdown.
The first half of 2010 totaled 6.9 million TEU, up 17% from the same period last year. The full year is forecast at 14.6 million TEU, which would be up 15% from the 12.7 million TEU seen 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.
“Despite the economic uncertainty and the underlying weakness of the economy, we continue not to project a double-dip recession,” says Ben Hackett, founder of consulting firm Hackett Associates. “Underlying fundamentals remain healthy. Inventory-to-sale ratios, while going up marginally, are still at a 10-year low, suggesting extremely tight supply chain management. Consumer confidence has not changed much over the last four months, but consumer expenditures have picked up. The fear of unemployment and financial exposure may be waning.”