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Retail Cargo Imports Expected to Grow in First Half on Increased Consumer Demand

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to increase 4.9% during the first half of 2018 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“We’re forecasting significant sales growth this year and that means retailers will have to import more merchandise to meet consumer demand,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF.

The import projection came a day after NRF forecast that 2018 retail sales will grow between 3.8% and 4.4% over 2017’s $3.53 trillion. 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.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.72 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in December. With most holiday merchandise already in the country by then, the number was down 2.1% from November, but up 8.4% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

The total for 2017 was 20.5 million TEU, topping by 7.6% 2016’s record 19.1 million TEU.

[Read more about apparel imports: Apparel Import Share Shifts as China Holds Steady and Ethiopia Expands]

January was estimated at 1.77 million TEU, up 4.1% year-over-year, while February was forecast at 1.67 million TEU, which would be a 14.8% increase from last year. March shipments are estimated to be down 1.1% to 1.54 million TEU, with cargo imports bouncing back 4.8% in April to 1.71 million TEU, with gains expected to continue with a 2.8% increase in May to 1.8 million TEU and a 4.9% hike in June to 1.8 million TEU.

The February and March percentages are skewed over changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

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Those numbers would bring the first half of 2018 to a total of 10.3 million TEU.

All of the numbers above are slightly higher than previous Global Port Tracker reports because Florida’s Port of Jacksonville has been added to the report beginning this month to reflect its growing importance as a container port used by retailers.

“It’s clear that 2017 turned out to be a remarkable year in terms of import container volume,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, which provides consulting, research and advisory services to the international maritime industry, government agencies and international institutions. “That level of growth is difficult to sustain, however, and our models suggest that 2018 will continue to expand, but only at about half that pace despite strong fundamentals that indicate a healthy economy and continued growth in consumer spending.”

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; Port of Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia, and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonvill, Florida, on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.