US Retail Import Volumes Still Low

Imports of containerized freight remain below 1 million containers as retailers take a cautious approach to inventory.

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports remained below 1 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in April. It was the third-slowest month in the past five years despite a slight improvement over March, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight.

“Retailers are still being cautious with their inventory levels in anticipation of slow sales this summer and into the fall,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “The big question is what will happen during the fourth quarter. Our numbers for the fall are an improvement over the summer but are still lower than last year.”

US ports surveyed handled 990,632 TEUs in April, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 2% from March but down 22% from April 2008. After February (839, 492 TEU) and March (970,949 TEU), the figure was the third-lowest since the 901,497 seen in February 2004, and marks the 22nd month in a row to see a year-over-year decline.

Volume for May was estimated at 1.03 million TEUs, down 21% from a year earlier, and June is forecast at 1.06 million TEUs, down 19% from last year. July is forecast at 1.1 million TEUs, down 16%; August at 1.14 million TEUs, down 17% and September at 1.12 million TEUs, down 18%. October–traditionally the peak of the annual shipping cycle as holiday merchandise flows into stores–is forecast at 1.15 million TEUs, down 16%.

The first half of 2009 is now forecast at 5.9 million TEUs, down 21% from the 7.5 million TEUs seen in the first half of 2008. Total volume for 2008 was 15.2 million TEUs, down 7.9% from 2007’s 16.5 million TEUs and the lowest level since 2004’s 14 million TEUs.

“Monthly cargo volumes are starting to creep up but the magnitude of the recessionary decline is clear when you compare this year’s numbers with last year’s,” according to Paul Bingham, IHS Global Insight Economist. “Import container traffic is projected to continue to be weak because of the underlying reduction in demand for goods during the recession.”

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