WASHINGTON — The volume of import shipments fell in March as retailers sought to manage high inventory levels and also faced a slight slowdown in the pace of growth of consumer spending, according to a new report.
The monthly Global Port Tracker report released Tuesday by the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates showed import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports fell 14.2 percent in March, the latest month for which data is available, compared with February.
Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.32 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in March. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
The decline was due in part to a “carryover” effect from the Chinese New Year factory closings, according to the report. But the March import cargo volume was also down a sharp 23.7 percent from the all-time record high set in March 2015.
The surge last March stemmed from a release of a backlog of cargo through the ports after a new contract with dockworkers was signed and brought to a close a dispute that nearly shut down West Coast ports last year.
The 1.73 million TEU seen in March 2015 broke a previous record of 1.59 million TEU set in September 2014, and was followed by numbers as high as 1.68 million TEU before the volatility in volumes settled down after the West Coast port dispute was resolved.
“Retailers are importing less merchandise than last year but these are still some of the highest numbers we’ve ever seen,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF. “Carefully managing imports will balance out high inventory levels but consumers can still expect to see a deep and broad selection of products.”
April is forcast at 1.5 million TEU, down 0.8 percent from the same month last year, when 2015’s “unusual pattern of cargo volumes started to stabilize.” May is forecast at 1.57 million TEU, down 2.7 percent from last year; June at 1.56 million TEU, down 0.8 percent; July at 1.61 million TEU, down 0.6 percent; August at 1.62 million TEU, down 3.7 percent, and September at 1.56 million TEU, down 3.9 percent.
“This year’s forecast peak of 1.62 million TEU in August would still be among the six highest months on record,” the NRF and Hackett Associates said.
The first half of 2016 is expected to total 9 million TEU, up 1.4 percent from the same period in 2015. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEU, up 5.4 percent from 2014. That forecast did not change from the February report, despite the decline in volume in March.
Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said the decreased imports reflected 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,” Hackett said. “A more cautious approach is being taken.”
Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach; Oakland, Calif.; Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Hampton Roads, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Port Everglades and Miami, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.