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Imports Pick Up Ahead of Back-to-School Season

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This time last year, the labor contract for West Coast dockworkers had just expired, leading to substantial delays, and retailers were worried a potential port closure could pose serious setbacks for back-to-school shipments.

This year, however, the outlook for the school shopping season is brighter—and import cargo volume at major retail ports is expected to increase 7.3% this month as retailers stock up for the students.

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consulting firm Hackett Associates, ports covered by the tracker (including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, New York/New Jersey, Miami and 10 others in North America) handled 1.6 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), a 6.2% increase over April and 8.2% more than May.

“Now that West Coast ports have recovered from the congestion caused by the recently settled contract dispute, retailers are focused on the back-to-school season to ensure that parents can find the supplies and clothing their children need for the fall,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said.

He added, “Retailers are continuing to work with their business partners to address ongoing congestion issues impacting their supply chains. Part of the solution will be Congress passing a long-term highway bill that addresses freight movement.”

In June, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the Ports Performance Act, which provides greater transparency by way of metrics on port operations to help offer earlier warning signs of possible disruptions. The bill’s sponsor and committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said following the approval, “This bill creates a right for the public to know, and an opportunity for government officials to act, if future labor strife or any other development threatens efficient operation of maritime commerce.”

The ports analyzed in the Port Tracker handled roughly 8.8 million 20-foot-long cargo containers in the first half of 2015, up 6.4% over the prior year period.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates said the jumps are right in line with other improving economic indicators, NRF reported.

“U.S. consumer spending recorded its largest increase in nearly six years in May, suggesting that the level of confidence about the future has improved,” Hackett said. “This is very positive news.”

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