For the second month in a row, retail imports into the U.S. have set a record high as retailers brought in merchandise for the busy holiday season. And the good news continues as retail imports are still arriving at unusually high levels this month, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the trade association National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.
“When imports break records two months in a row, it’s hard to see that as anything other than a good sign about what retailers expect in consumer demand,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Consumers are buying more, and everybody from dockworkers to truck drivers is trying to keep up. We hope this is a sign of a strong holiday season for retailers, shoppers and our nation’s economy.”
Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.8 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in August, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. The volume was the highest recorded since NRF began tracking imports in 2000, topping the previous record of 1.78 million TEUs set just one month earlier in July. The record before that had been 1.73 million TEUs in March 2015. August was up 1.4% over July and 5.6% over August 2016. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
September was estimated at 1.65 million TEUs, up 3.7% from last year, and October is forecast at 1.72 million TEUs, up 2.8%. While not a record, the October number would be one of only six times in the report’s history that the monthly total has hit 1.7 million TEUs or higher. November is forecast at 1.62 million TEUs, down 1.7% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.59 million TEUs, up 1.3%.
Growth has slowed from the first half of the year but 2017 is expected to total 19.8 million TEUs, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEUs by 5.4%. That compares with 2016’s 3.1% increase over 2015. The first half of 2017 totaled 9.7 million TEUs, up 7.5% from the same period in 2016.
January 2018 is forecast at 1.64 million TEUs, down 2% from January 2017, and February is forecast at 1.58 million TEUs, up 10% from the same month in 2017.
The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting that 2017 retail sales will grow between 3.2% and 3.8% over 2016 and that this year’s holiday sales will grow between 3.6% and 4%. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.
“The volume of containers imported through August continues to grow and we expect this to continue through October before a slack period arrives as the holiday season inventory buildup comes to an end,” says Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “We do expect growth in imports to slacken off in the coming year, but it will still remain positive.”
Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.