NRF: Container Traffic Growth Expected In 2017

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to increase 4.6% during the first half of 2017 over the same period last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy with the NRF, said the anticipated growth in imports is in line with the NRF’s forecasted growth in retail sales.

“Retailers try to balance inventories very carefully with demand,” he said. “So, when retailers import more merchandise, that’s a pretty good indicator of what they are expecting to happen with sales.”

As previously reported by, the NRF forecasted 2017 retail sales growth of between 3.7% and 4.2%, excluding sales of automobiles, gasoline and restaurants. Online and other non-store/online sales, which are included in the overall number, are expected to increase between 8% and 12%.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.58 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in December, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 3.8% from November as the holiday season came to an end but up 10.2% from December 2015. That brought 2016 cargo volume to a total of 18.8 million TEU, up 3.2% from 2015, which had grown 5.4% from 2014. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

January was estimated at 1.59 million TEU, up 6.6% from January 2016. February is forecast at 1.53 million TEU, down 0.6% from last year; March at 1.43 million TEU, up 7.8% from last year; April at 1.56 million TEU, up 8.2%; May at 1.66 million TEU, up 2.3%; and June at 1.65 million TEU, up 4.3%.

Those numbers would bring the first half of 2017 to 9.4 million TEU, up 4.6% from the first half of 2016.

However, the NRF cautioned that cargo volume does not correlate directly to sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“The United States is well placed in 2017 and is likely to outperform most of the rest of the developed economies,” said Ben Hackett, Hackett Associates founder. “If the infrastructure investments promised by the new administration come about, we can expect stronger growth than in 2016, but that assumes good relationships with U.S. trading partners and no recourse to trade barriers that would result in a tit-for-tat response.”