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Christmas Comes Early as Retailers Plan Ahead for Holidays

Nov. 12, 2015
Import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports are ahead of last year's pace as consumers begin their holiday shopping.

Import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to increase 8.3% this month over the same time last year as consumers begin their holiday shopping, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.

“Conditions aren’t perfect but the ports are running reasonably well,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “That’s a dramatic difference from this time last year, when the West Coast ports were experiencing slowdowns and congestion from labor negotiations. Retailers had instituted costly contingency plans but were still worried about whether merchandise would be unloaded in time for the holidays. This year, most merchandise has already arrived and replenishment should not be a problem.”

The cargo report comes as NRF is forecasting a 3.7% increase in holiday sales this year over 2014. Cargo volume does not directly correlate with sales figures because each container counts the same regardless of the value of its content, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.62 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in September, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 3.5% from August but up 2.2% from a year ago. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

October was estimated at 1.63 million TEUs, up 4.5% from 2014. November is forecast at 1.51 million TEUs, up 8.3%, and December at 1.44 million TEUs, up 0.4%.

Those numbers would bring 2015 to a total of 18.35 million TEUs, up 6.1% from last year. The first half of 2015 totaled 8.9 million TEUs, up 6.5% over the same period last year.

January 2016 is forecast at 1.46 million TEUs, up 18.5% from weak numbers seen a year earlier just before West Coast dockworkers agreed in February 2015 on a new contract that ended a months-long labor dispute. February 2016 is forecast at 1.41 million TEUs, up 17.9%, also skewed by the labor dispute. March is forecast at 1.35 million TEUs, down 21.9% from a year ago because of large volumes seen after the contract agreement.

“Inflation remains non-existent, which worries the Federal Reserve, but with unemployment at 5% we expect to see rising take-home pay that will translate into higher sales,” say Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “In sum, the U.S. economy is doing well.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, 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.