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Cargo Imports Level Off as Retailers Enter Holiday Selling Season

After months of record-setting volume as retailers stocked up for a busy holiday season, imports at the nation’s major container ports should be essentially flat this month compared with the same time last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The stores and warehouses are full, and it’s time for the shopping to begin,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Retailers have been bringing in merchandise since late summer, and supply is ready to meet the increased demand that has been building throughout the year.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.76 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in September, a 2.3% decrease from the record-setting 1.8 million TEU recorded in August, but still a 10.5% increase year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

[Read more about container shipping: Digital Disruption Will Cause Waves in Container Shipping]

October shipments were estimated at 1.75 million TEU, up 4.9% from last year. The September and October numbers were among only six times that monthly volume has hit 1.7 million TEU or higher since NRF began tracking imports in 2000.

November cargo input is forecast at 1.63 million TEU, down 0.5% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.6 million TEU, which would be a 2 percent increase.

The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU by 6.3%. That compares with 2016’s 3.1% increase over 2015. The first half of 2017 totaled 9.7 million TEU, up 7.5% from the same period in 2016.

January shipments are forecast at 1.66 million TEU, down 1 percent from a year earlier, while February imports are expected to reach 1.59 million TEU, up 10.9% from last year and March is projected at 1.5 million TEU, a 2.1% decline. The February and March percentages are skewed due to changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

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The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting that 2017 retail sales will grow between 3.2 and 3.8% over 2016 and that this year’s holiday sales will increase 3.6% to 4 percent. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, and does not include goods shipped to retailers by air and land, but still provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“This has turned out to be a boom year for growth in import cargo volume,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “It reflects strong growth in spending by U.S. consumers.”

After a record-setting year, however, the rate of import growth is expected to slow in 2018.

“We see no decline in volume and no recession–just time out for a breather,” Hackett said.

The Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, California; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Hampton Roads, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina;  Savannah, Georgia; and Port Everglades and Miami, Florida on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.