Retailers Ho-Ho-Hope for a Strong Fall to Rekindle Sales

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports will remain below last year’s levels for the remainder of the summer before seeing year-over-year gains again this fall as retailers begin to stock up for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Cargo numbers have been down this summer but that’s a reflection of last year’s unusual shipping patterns more than the economy,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “The economy continues to face challenges, but job growth has been steady and retailers have been adding jobs themselves as sales improve. Cargo figures for this fall clearly show that retailers are expecting a healthy holiday season.”

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.25 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in June, the latest month for which numbers are available. That was down 2.6% from May and 5% from June 2010. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

June’s volume broke an 18-month streak of year-over-year improvement dating to December 2009, and declines continued in July, which was estimated at 1.3 million TEUs, down 5.7% from July 2010. August is forecast at 1.4 million TEUs, a 1.6% decrease from a year ago. Rather than indicating an economic downturn, however, the numbers are a skewed comparison against higher-than-normal numbers last summer, when fears of shortages in shipping capacity caused many retailers to bring holiday merchandise into the country earlier than usual. Actual retail sales have seen 12 straight months of growth.

Year-over-year increases are expected to resume in September, which is forecast at 1.48 million TEUs, up 10.4% from last year. October is forecast at 1.46 million TEUs, up 8% from last year; November at 1.31 million TEUs, up 6.2%; and December at 1.18 million TEUs, up 3%.

The first half of 2011 totaled 7.15 million TEUs, up 3.9% from the first half of 2010, and the full year is forecast at 15.28 million TEUs, up 3.6% from 2010. Imports during 2010 totaled 14.7 million TEUs, a 16% increase over unusually low numbers in 2009.

While cargo volume is expected to increase through this fall’s holiday shipping cycle, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett says a number of key economic indicators are raising concerns about future cargo growth.

“Industrial production in China is weak, bulk commodity imports are declining, and ports are beginning to report reduced export volumes,” Hackett says. “In the U.S., we have lower private consumption, lower government expenditure and lower indices like the purchasing managers’ index. This is cause for concern because it could lead to lower growth of trade volumes.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by 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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