Containerized imports are slowing at the 10 major U.S. retail ports following their peak in August but are expected to be up 9 percent in November over the still-recession-bound month of November 2009, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
"The cargo numbers show that retailers are expecting a much better holiday season than they have seen over the past two years, but the industry is still being cautious," said Jonathan Gold, the NRF's vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "Retailers know shoppers still have the economy in mind, so they are being very mindful with inventory levels this year."
U.S. ports handled 1.34 million 20-foot equivalent units in September, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 6 percent from the August peak but up 17 percent from September 2009. It was the 10th month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December 2009 broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines.
The Intermodal Association of North America in its latest quarterly report confirms Port Tracker's expectations.
By The Numbers: Container Rate Benchmark.
Port Tracker estimated October's imports at 1.29 million TEUs, a 9 percent increase over last year. October is historically the busiest month of the year as retailers stock up for the holiday season, but the peak shifted to August this year as retailers brought merchandise into the country early to avoid a repeat of delays on the part of ocean carriers seen earlier this year.
November is forecast at 1.19 million TEUs, up 9 percent from last year, and December at 1.1 million TEUs, up 1 percent. January 2011 is forecast at 1.08 million TEUs, up 7 percent from 2010. But February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.06 million TEUs, down 5 percent from last year, and March is forecast at 1.04 million TEUs, down 10 percent.
Port Tracker has not yet calculated forecasts beyond March, but anticipates a solid recovery in the second and third quarters of 2011 after the usual slack winter season.
"Despite the economic uncertainty and the underlying weakness of the economy, we continue not to project a double-dip recession," said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. "Underlying fundamentals remain healthy. Inventory-to-sale ratios, while going up marginally, are still at a 10-year low, suggesting extremely tight supply chain management. Consumer confidence has not changed much over the last four months, but consumer expenditures have picked up. The fear of unemployment and financial exposure may be waning."
Imports in the first half of 2010 totaled 6.9 million TEUs, up 17 percent from the same period last year. Imports for the full year are forecast at 14.6 million TEUs, which would be up 15 percent from the 12.7 million TEUs seen in 2009, which was the lowest since the 12.5 million TEUs in 2003. The 2010 number remains below the 15.2 million TEUs in 2008 imports and the peak of 16.5 million TEUs in 2007.
Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Long Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.
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