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Retail Imports Experience Post-Holiday Inventory Blues

Jan. 13, 2016
Now that the holidays over, retail imports are trending down while inventories are increasing.

With the Christmas season over, import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to slowly decline through the first quarter of 2016, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.

“This is the time of year when the retail supply chain catches its breath before the next big rush begins,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Retailers are still tallying the bottom line of the holiday season, but they’re also making plans for the spring and summer.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.48 million twenty-foot equivalent units in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. With most holiday merchandise already in the country by that point, volume was down 5% from October but up 6% from the year before. December was estimated at 1.44 million TEUs, the same as 2014. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

The numbers are still subject to revision, but 2015 came to a preliminary total of 18.2 million TEUs, up 5.4% from 2014.

This month is forecast at 1.47 million TEUs, up 18.9% from weak volume seen a year ago just before agreement on a contract with West Coast dockworkers ended months of congestion. February is forecast at 1.41 million TEUs, up 17.5%, also skewed by the congestion. March is forecast at 1.34 million TEUs, down 22.4% from high levels seen when a flood of backlogged cargo followed the contract agreement. Patterns are expected to return to normal in April, which is forecast at 1.48 million TEUs, down 1.8% from last year. May is forecast at 1.55 million TEUs, down 3.5% from last year.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, says inventory levels remain high, partly because of warm weather that reduced demand for winter clothing. “We continue to remain concerned about the high inventory-to-sales ratio,” he says. “Enough time has passed since the disruption on the West Coast that we can no longer look to that for justification of the high level.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm 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.

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