Downturn in retailer container traffic ending as retailers prepare for holidays

Washington, D.C. -- Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is beginning to see cautious increases over last year again, ending a summer-long downturn as retailers prepare for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“With the most crucial spending period of the year just weeks away, retailers have made careful decisions on the amount of merchandise they need to properly stock their stores during the holidays,” NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said. “This year, retailers have the luxury of importing holiday goods later than last year, which better ensures their inventory levels will accurately meet consumer demand.”

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.32 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in July, the latest month for which numbers are available. That was up 6% from June but down 4% from July 2010. One TEU is one 20-ft. cargo container or its equivalent. July was the second month in a row to show a year-over-year decline, and August was flat compared with last year, at an estimated 1.42 million TEU. Rather than indicating an economic downturn, however, the numbers are a skewed comparison against higher-than-normal numbers last summer, when fears of shortages in shipping capacity caused many retailers to bring holiday merchandise into the country earlier than usual. Global Port Tracker counts only the number of cargo containers imported, not the value of their contents, so cargo volume does not directly correlate with retail sales.

Year-over-year growth is beginning to resume in September, which is forecast to be up 11.8% from September 2010 at 1.5 million TEU. October is forecast at 1.48 million TEU, up 9.5%; November at 1.33 million TEU, up 8%; and December at 1.2 million TEU, up 4.5%. January 2012 is forecast to be down 1% from January 2011.

The total for 2011 is forecast at 15.4 million TEU, up 4.3% from 2010. Imports during 2010 totaled 14.7 million TEU, a 16% increase over unusually low numbers in 2009.

Given the seasonal nature of cargo volume and continuing uncertainties about the economy, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett was cautious about cargo volume in 2012.

“We should not be lulled into too much confidence by the relatively strong import volumes of August and September,” Hackett said. “These are linked to the low levels of inventory that needed to be raised to meet the return-to-school and post-Thanksgiving sales. The third quarter will be positive for the ocean carriers and retailers but that will turn into negative growth for the next two to three quarters thereafter.”