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Warehouses Are Full as Holiday Season Commences

Imports take a breather as retail shelves are fully stocked for peak season.

After months of record-setting volume as retailers stocked up for a busy holiday season, imports at the nation’s major container ports will be essentially flat this month compared with the same time last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.

“The stores and warehouses are full, and it’s time for the shopping to begin,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Retailers have been bringing in merchandise since late summer, and supply is ready to meet the increased demand that has been building throughout the year.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.76 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in September, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was a 2.3% decrease from the record-setting 1.8 million TEUs recorded in August, but still a 10.5% increase year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

October was estimated at 1.75 million TEUs, up 4.9% from last year. While not records, the September and October numbers were among only six times that monthly volume has hit 1.7 million TEUs or higher since NRF began tracking imports in 2000.

November is forecast at 1.63 million TEUs, down 0.5% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.6 million TEUs, up 2%.

The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20 million TEUs, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEUs by 6.3%. 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 1.66 million TEUs, down 1% from January 2017; February at 1.59 million TEUs, up 10.9% from last year, and March at 1.5 million TEUs, down 2.1%. The February and March%ages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

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.

“This has turned out to be a boom year for growth in import cargo volume,” says Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “It reflects strong growth in spending by U.S. consumers.”

After a record-setting year, however, the rate of import growth is expected to slow in 2018. “We see no decline in volume and no recession—just time out for a breather,” Hackett says.

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.

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