Traditional Peak Season May Be Melting Away

Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is expected to total 14.5 million containers for 2010, a 15% increase over last year's unusually low numbers as the economy continues its cautious recovery, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

"We aren't back to where we were two years ago and consumers aren't convinced that the recession is over quite yet, but 2010 is clearly going to finish better than last year," predicts Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy with the National Retail Federation (NRF). "In the meantime, retailers are monitoring demand very closely and hoping to see increases in employment and other areas that will boost consumer confidence. Cargo numbers this summer are showing unusually high percentage increases, but that appears to be an indication of shortages in shipping capacity earlier in the year rather than sales expectations."

U.S. ports handled 1.32 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in June, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 4% from May and 30% from June 2009. It was the seventh month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

July was estimated at 1.38 million TEU, a 25% increase over last year. August is forecast at 1.32 million TEU, up 14% from last year; September also at 1.32 million TEU, up 16%; October at 1.31 million TEU, up 10%; November at 1.19 million TEU, up 9%; and December at 1.12 million TEU, up 2%.

The first half of 2010 was estimated at 6.9 million TEU, up 17% from the same period last year. The 14.5 million TEU total forecast for 2010 would be up from 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.

The large double-digit increases in June and July appear to be the result of backlogs built up due to the lack of shipping capacity earlier in the year after ship owners took vessels out of service during the recession and were slow to return them as the economy began to pick up. With many retailers appearing to bring merchandise in early to avoid any further bottlenecks, July is likely to be the peak shipping month for 2010 rather than the traditional rush of holiday season merchandise in October.

"There are indications that the shipping season may have peaked earlier than normal as the rush to restock inventories earlier in the year intersects with a combination of increased shipping capacity, consumer confidence levels not seen since August 2009 and the slowing growth of consumer spending," says Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. "The traditional peak season may be melting away."

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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