Ocean Cargo

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to increase 3.2 percent this month over the same time last year, as stores bring in the last of the merchandise for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“There’s still shopping to be done and retailers are making sure the gifts that need to be under a tree are waiting on the shelves,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Imports are up a healthy amount over this time last year, and that’s a good sign for holiday sales and the economy.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.67 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in October. That was up 4.6 percent from September and 7.4 percent more than October 2015. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

November was estimated to come in at 1.53 million TEU, up 3.6 percent from last year, and December is forecast at 1.48 million TEU, a 3.2 percent increase.

The numbers come as NRF is forecasting $655.8 billion in holiday sales, a 3.6 percent increase over last year. Cargo volume does not correlate directly to sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside. But it still serves as a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

Cargo volume for 2016 is expected to total 18.6 million TEU, up 2 percent from last year. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEU, a 5.4 percent hike from 2014. The first half of 2016 totaled 9 million TEU, up 1.6 percent from the same period in 2015.

January cargo volume is forecast at 1.54 million TEU, 3.2 percent more than a year earlier; February at 1.49 million TEU, which would be down 3.5 percent from year-ago figures; March at 1.38 million TEU, up 4.4 percent year-to-year, and April at 1.54 million TEU, a 6.4 percent year-to-year gain.

With cargo growth at covered U.S. ports for the year coming in at only 2 percent, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said a trend of imports exceeding growth of gross domestic product appears to have ended.

“This is a new phenomenon,” Hackett said. “It was not long ago when industry leaders were doing their forecasts based on trade growth outpacing GDP by a ratio of more than 2-to-1. Those days are gone.”

Global Port Tracker, produced for NRF by consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach; Oakland, Calig.; and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Hampton Roads, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Fla. and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.