Hanjin Shipping

WASHINGTON — Retailers continuing to build inventories for the holidays are expected to boost imports at the nation’s major retail container ports by an estimated 4.4 percent this month compared with a year earlier, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Retailers are importing more during the holidays this year than last year and that can only mean one thing — they expect to sell more,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. “Most of the holiday merchandise is already here, but retailers are still restocking to be sure shoppers will have a broad and deep selection as they hit the stores over the next several weeks.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.6 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in September, the latest month for which the final numbers are available. That was down 6.6 percent from August, the busiest month of the year, and down 1.6 percent from September 2015. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

The tracker also found that volume rebounded in October to an estimated 1.67 million TEU, up 7.5 percent from last year. It is forecasting that retail imports will be up 4.4 percent to 1.54 million TEU in November and will increase 4.5 percent to 1.5 million TEU in December.

The projected increases in retail imports come on the heels of a projected 3.6 percent increase in holiday sales to $655.8 billion compared with last year, according to the NRF.

NRF and Hackett said cargo volume does not correlate directly to sales because it is based on the number of containers and not the value of the cargo. “But it nonetheless serves as a barometer of retailers’ expectations,” the companies said.

“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 nonetheless serves as a barometer of retailers’ expectations,” the NRF and Hackett said.

Cargo volume for 2016 is expected to total 18.6 million TEU, up 2.2 percent from last year. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEU, an increase of 5.4 percent over 2014. The first half of 2016 totaled 9 million TEU, an increase of 1.6 percent from a year earlier.

Looking ahead, the port tracker is forecasting an increase in volume of 3.6 percent to 1.54 million TEU in January compared with last year; a decrease of 3.2 percent to 1.49 million TEU in February; and a 4.6 percent increase to 1.38 million TEU in March.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, said imports are growing at a slower pace than in past years.

“Despite all the good economic news recently, we are faced with imports growing only about 2 percent this year,” Hackett said. “Whether that is merely part of the aftermath of the Hanjin bankruptcy or a sign of weakening demand is not yet clear. Unless there is a major disruption, however, growth should be modest but sustained during the first half of 2017.”

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.; Miami and Port Everglades, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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