Import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to be essentially unchanged from last year this month as stores brought in the last round of merchandise for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.
“Retailers went into the season with strong inventories that ensured consumers would have a good depth and breadth of selection,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy,” and those trends should hold true for the remainder of the year.
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 1.56 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in October, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 4.1% from September and down 0.1% from a year ago. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
November was estimated at 1.5 million TEUs, up 7.4% from 2014, and December is forecast at 1.44 million TEUs, down 0.1% from last year.
Those numbers would bring 2015 to a total of 18.3 million TEUs, up 5.5% 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 17.9% from weak numbers seen a year earlier just before West Coast dockworkers agreed on a new contract that ended a months-long labor dispute. February 2016 is forecast at 1.4 million TEUs, up 16.9%, also skewed by the labor dispute. March is forecast at 1.35 million TEUs, down 22.4% from a year ago because of large volumes seen after the contract agreement. Patterns are expected to return to normal in April, which is forecast at 1.51 million TEUs, down 0.3% from last year.
According to Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, retailers are still working off excess inventory built up after the West Coast port situation and sustained by warm weather that has diminished the demand for winter clothing, but that consumers are buying.
“U.S. retail sales increased in October by the most in three months and consumer sentiment rose as well, but the inventory-to-sales ratio remained stubbornly high at levels not seen since the Great Recession in 2009,” Hackett says. “Personal savings increased, but on the flip side so did the use of credit cards.”
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.