Although September imports of retail merchandise will continue at above-average levels through U.S. ports, volume will drop from the record set in August, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. This higher volume was due in large part to retailer concerns about a potential West Coast port labor strike.
“The negotiations have made progress and retailers have been stocking up, but there’s still cargo that needs to arrive before the holiday season kicks off,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Retailers are making sure that consumer demand during the holidays will be met.”
Import volume at U.S. ports covered by the Global Port Tracker report is expected to total 1.47 million containers this month, down from the all-time monthly record of 1.53 million set in August as retailers imported merchandise early in case of any disruption on the docks. September has averaged 1.42 million containers over the past five years.
The contract between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired on July 1, prompting concerns about potential disruptions that could affect back-to-school or holiday merchandise. A tentative agreement on health benefits was announced last month but the two sides are continuing to negotiate on other issues as dockworkers remain on the job.
U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.5 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in July, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 1.1 percent from June and 3.7 percent from July 2013. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.
August was estimated at 1.53 million TEU, up 2.9 percent from the same month last year, and September is forecast at 1.47 million TEU, up 2.4 percent from last year. October is forecast at 1.51 million TEU, up 5.5 percent; November at 1.39 million TEU, up 3.8 percent; and December at 1.37 million TEU, up 4.1 percent.
Those numbers would bring 2014 to a total of 17.1 million TEU, an increase of 5.3 percent over 2013’s 16.2 million. Imports in 2012 totaled 15.8 million. The first half of the 2014 totaled 8.3 million TEU, up 7 percent over last year.
January 2015 is forecast at 1.43 million TEU, up 3.8 percent from January 2014.
The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting 3.6 percent sales growth in 2014. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales but is a barometer of retailers’ expectations.
Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said cargo levels have bounced back since the lows seen during the 2009 recession, but that the recovery has not been as steady as those after previous recessions.
“The North American economy is certainly growing, but at lower rates than one would expect coming out of a deep recession,” Hackett said. “It remains hesitant, growing in spurts rather than in a sustained pattern.”