Retail Imports Hit Near-Record Highs at US Ports

May 15, 2016
Consumer spending is still growing but not as fast as in the past as buyers become more cautious.

Import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to be at some of the highest levels ever during the next few months despite a falloff from last year’s record-setting numbers, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.

“Retailers are importing less merchandise than last year but these are still some of the highest numbers we’ve ever seen,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Carefully managing imports will balance out high inventory levels but consumers can still expect to see a deep and broad selection of products.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.32 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in March 2016, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. (One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.) That was down 14.2% from February, partly because of a carryover from Chinese New Year factory closings. It was also down a dramatic 23.7% from the all-time record high set in March 2015 after a new contract with dockworkers ended a near-shutdown at West Coast ports and brought a flood of backlogged cargo through the ports.

April was estimated at 1.5 million TEUs, down 0.8% from the same month last year, when 2015’s unusual pattern of cargo volumes started to stabilize. May is forecast at 1.57 million TEUs, down 2.7% from last year; June at 1.56 million TEUs, down 0.8%; July at 1.61 million TEUs, down 0.6%; August at 1.62 million TEUs, down 3.7%, and September at 1.56 million TEUs, down 3.9%.

The 1.73 million TEUs seen in March 2015 broke a previous record of 1.59 million TEUs set in September 2014, and was followed by numbers as high as 1.68 million TEUs before last year’s unusual patterns settled down. But this year’s forecast peak of 1.62 million TEUs in August would still be among the six highest months on record.

The first half of 2016 is expected to total 9 million TEUs, up 1.4% from the same period in 2015. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEUs, up 5.4% from 2014.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, says the decreased imports reflect both high inventory levels and slow growth in consumer spending in recent months. “Consumer spending is still growing but not as fast as in the past,” he notes. “A more cautious approach is being taken.”

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.

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