The Global Port Tracker retail industry shipping report lowered its fall container import forecasts for the second straight month and said stores are keeping inventories tight in an uncertain economy.
The National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates expects a year-over-year decrease of 2.3 percent to 1.32 million 20-foot equivalent units in October, compared with last month’s forecast of a 2.6 percent increase. Two months ago the Port Tracker had forecast a 9.5 percent increase in October.
With most holiday merchandise already en route to stores, the November forecast calls for a 1.9 percent year-over-year decline to 1.21 million TEUs in November instead of a previously forecast 4 percent increase. The report calls for a 3.33 percent drop to 1.11 million TEUs in December, compared with a previously forecast 2.7 percent increase.
“As always, retailers are being very strategic with their supply chains,” said Jonathan Gold, the retail federation’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Although sales are expected to be in line with the 10-year average, retailers are keeping inventory levels extremely lean and filling their stores wall-to-wall with discounts and promotions. Unlike in 2008, when the financial crisis caught everyone off-guard, retailers have a strong understanding of the consumer mindset this Christmas.”
After the holidays, January 2012 is forecast at 1.1 million TEUs, down 8.7 percent from January 2011; February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is expected to total 996,816 TEUs, down 9.4 percent; and March is expected to see 1.08 million TEUs, down 0.6 percent. The total for 2011 is forecast at 14.76 million TEUs, just slightly above the 2010 total of 14.75 million TEU.
Port Tracker said the 10 ports tracked by their report handled 1.33 million 20-foot-equivalent units of containers in September, the latest month for which actual numbers are available.
That was up 0.4 percent from August and made September the year’s busiest month for imports. September volume, however, was down 0.6 percent year-over-year. The previous month’s Port Tracker report had forecast a 2.7 percent increase for September. Two months ago, the report forecast an 11.8 percent increase for September.
U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.33 million TEUs in September, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 0.4 percent from August and made September the busiest month of the year as retailers rushed to stock stores for the holidays, but was down 0.6 percent from September 2010. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.
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. The NRF is forecasting 2.8 percent growth in holiday sales during November and December over last year, for a total of $465.6 billion.
Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett cautioned that year-over-year comparisons can be skewed, especially after higher-than-usual numbers in 2010 when cargo patterns changed because of shortages in shipping capacity.
“Months come in four- and five-week chunks and can give misleading information when looked at in isolation,” Hackett said. “Comparing them on a year-on-year basis is also dangerous as 2010 was such a strong year. We continue to believe that the economy will pick up speed – assuming there is no Euro meltdown – by March or April of next year.”
Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Long Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey, Virginia, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.