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US Port Volume Expected to Pick Up

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It looks like the West Coast ports drama that wreaked havoc on retailers for most of 2014 and part of this year hasn’t quelled their expectations for a busy holiday shopping season and beyond.

According to the monthly “Global Port Tracker” report released Wednesday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, a maritime industry consultant, import volume for December is expected to total 1.44 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs). That’s down a mere 0.1% from last year, despite widespread reports of elevated inventory levels and slow sales at many U.S. stores.

Furthermore, November’s volume was estimated at 1.5 million TEUs, up 7.4% from the same month a year ago.

“The holiday season is well under way and merchants are doing the final balancing act of matching supply to demand,” said the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold. “Retailers went into the season with strong inventories that ensured consumers would have a good depth and breadth of selection and that should hold true for the remainder of the season.”

The report includes the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; and New York-New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

If the forecast comes to fruition, those numbers would bring 2015 to a total of 18.3 million TEUs, up 5.5% from 2014. That projected increase is in spite of lackluster levels in October—the usual peak season for imports—that saw ports covered by the monthly tracker handle 1.56 million TEUs, a 4.1% decline from September and down 0.1% from the same period a year ago.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, pointed out that though retailers are still working to clear excess inventory, consumers are buying. The NRF, meanwhile, has forecast a 3.7% increase in holiday sales this year.

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“U.S. retail sales increased in October by the most in three months and consumer sentiment rose as well, but the inventory-to-sales ratio remained stubbornly high at levels not seen since the Great Recession in 2009,” Hackett said. “Personal savings increased, but on the flip side so did the use of credit cards.”

Looking ahead to 2016, the report forecast 1.46 million TEUs in January—a 17.9% increase from the previous year—and a 16.9% rise to 1.4 million TEUs in February. March numbers, however, are expected to be down 22.4% from 2014 to 1.35 million TEUs because of large volumes seen after the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) settled on a five-year labor agreement.