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Cargo Imports Set Second Record High as Retailers Prep for Holiday Season

Cargo container imports set a second all-time monthly record high this summer, as retailers brought in merchandise for the busy holiday season, and are continuing at unusually high levels this month, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Tuesday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“When imports break records two months in a row, it’s hard to see that as anything other than a good sign about what retailers expect in consumer demand,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Consumers are buying more and everybody from dockworkers to truck drivers is trying to keep up. We hope this is a sign of a strong holiday season for retailers, shoppers and our nation’s economy.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.8 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in August. The volume was the highest recorded since NRF began tracking imports in 2000, topping the previous record of 1.78 million TEU set in July. The record before that had been 1.73 million TEU in March 2015. August was up 1.4% over July and 5.6% over August 2016. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

Import shipments in September were estimated at 1.65 million TEU, up 3.7% from last year, and October is forecast at 1.72 million TEU, a 2.8% gain. While not a record, the October number would be one of only six times in the report’s history that the monthly total has hit 1.7 million TEU or higher. November is forecast at 1.62 million TEU, down 1.7% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.59 million TEU, which would be a 1.3% increase.

Growth has slowed from the first half of the year, but 2017 is expected to total 19.8 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU by 5.4%. 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 is forecast at 1.64 million TEU, down 2 percent from January 2017, and February is forecast at 1.58 million TEU, up 10 percent from the same month in 2017.

[Read more about cargo imports: Expanded Panama Canal Giving Importers More Options]

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 grow between 3.6% and 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, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“The volume of containers imported through August continues to grow and we expect this to continue through October before a slack period arrives as the holiday season inventory buildup comes to an end,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “We do expect growth in imports to slacken off in the coming year, but it will still remain positive.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland, California; and 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.

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