December Port Traffic Flat Year-Over-Year

Import cargo volume for December at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to be essentially unchanged year-over-year as stores bring in the last round of merchandise for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The holiday season is well under way and merchants are doing the final balancing act of matching supply to demand,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vp/supply chain and customs policy. “Retailers went into the season with strong inventories that ensured consumers would have a good depth and breadth of selection, and that should hold true for the remainder of the season.”

The cargo report comes as NRF is forecasting a 3.7% increase in holiday sales this year over 2014. Cargo volume does not directly correlate with sales figures because each container counts the same regardless of the value of its content, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.56 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in October, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 4.1% from September and down 0.1% from a year ago. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

November was estimated at 1.5 million TEU, up 7.4% from 2014, and December is forecast at 1.44 million TEU, down 0.1% from last year.

Those numbers would bring 2015 to a total of 18.3 million TEU, up 5.5% from last year. The first half of 2015 totaled 8.9 million TEU, up 6.5% over the same period last year.

January 2016 is forecast at 1.46 million TEU, up 17.9% from weak numbers seen this past January just before West Coast dockworkers agreed on a new contract that ended a months-long labor dispute. February 2016 is forecast at 1.4 million TEU, up 16.9%, also skewed by the labor dispute.

March is forecast at 1.35 million TEU, down 22.4% from a year ago because of large volumes seen after the contract agreement. Patterns are expected to return to normal in April, which is forecast at 1.51 million TEU, down 0.3% from last year.

Hackett Associates founder, Ben Hackett, said retailers are still working off excess inventory built up after the West Coast port situation and sustained by warm weather that has diminished the demand for winter clothing, but that consumers are buying.