Retail Container Traffic Ends Two-Year Decline

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports ended a nearly two-and-a-half-year streak of year-over-year declines in December and is on track to show gains through the first half of 2010, according to a six-month forecast from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“These numbers are a clear sign that retailers are optimistic about 2010,” says Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and Customs policy with NRF. “Retailers are still going to be cautious with their inventories, but we wouldn’t see these increases in imports if stores weren’t expecting sales to improve. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen year-over-year volume go up, so this is definitely good news.”

U.S. ports handled 1.09 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) in November, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 8% from October, traditionally the busiest month of the year, and 10% from November 2008. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

The November number marked the 28th month in a row to show a decrease from the same month a year earlier. But the trend was broken in December, which was estimated at 1.08 million TEU, down slightly from November as the holiday season came to a close but a 1.7% increase over December 2008.

Year-over-year increases are expected to continue through the remainder of the six-month forecast range. January is forecast at 1.15 million TEU, a 9% increase over January 2010, and February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.05 million TEU, up 25% from the previous year. March is forecast at 1.16 million TEU, up 21% as retailers begin to stock up for spring and summer, April at 1.19 million TEU, up 20%, and May at 1.2 million TEU, up 15%.

The report estimates that 2009 ended with a total volume of 12.7 million TEU, down 17% from 2008’s 15.2 million TEU and the lowest since the 12.5 million TEU reported in 2003.

“The U.S. economy is experiencing positive growth, with imports on the rise as a result of re-stocking and a rising consumer demand,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett says. “Consumer sentiment remains cautious, however.”

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