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Cargo Imports Doubled in 2017 on Stronger Retail Sales

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports grew 7 percent during 2017, more than double 2016’s 3.1% gain, as retail sales continued to increase and the industry wrapped up the year with a strong holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Retail had a strong year fueled by growing wages, higher employment and a boost in consumer confidence,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Retailers imported more merchandise than ever to meet demand for quality products at affordable prices and growth is expected to continue in the year ahead.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.74 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in November. With most holiday merchandise already in the country by that point, the number was down 1.7% from October, but up 5.8% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.6 million TEU, up 2.6% from a year earlier. The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20.1 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU. The year set an all-time monthly record of 1.8 million TEU in August and included five of only seven months on record when imports have hit 1.7 million TEU or higher.

Cargo container imports are forecast to reach 1.68 million TEU this month, up 0.2% from January 2017. February’s imports are projected to increase 12.6% to 1.62 million TEU year-over-year, while March is forecast to be down 2.3% at 1.5 million TEU. The February and March percentages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

[Read more about container imports: Import Cargo Increases in 2017, but a Nixed NAFTA Could Curb That Spike]

This year Lunar New Year begins Feb. 16, with many factories in China closing for up to four weeks in celebration, while last year’s Lunar New Year began on Jan. 28. The pace of shipments are expected to pick up in April, when 1.66 million TEU are forecast to be handled at the ports, a 3.3% increase, and May is forecast to increase 0.4% to 1.73 million TEU.

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NRF forecast that 2017 retail sales would grow 3.2% to 3.8% over 2016 and that holiday sales would grow between 3.6% and 4 percent, but year-end numbers will not be released by the Census Bureau until Friday. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but still provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations. In apparel, an estimated 97 percent of goods at retail are imported.

“On a percentage basis, 2017 was one of the strongest increases we’ve seen since the end of the Great Recession,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, which provides expert consulting, research and advisory services to the international maritime industry, government agencies and international institutions.  “The rate is expected to slow down some, but with 2017’s performance and continuing high consumer confidence, our models show continued growth in the coming year.”

Global Port Tracker 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.