U.S. import volumes may face uneasy autumn
Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is expected to increase 16 percent in July, but double-digit increases seen in recent months should taper offer this fall as retailers cautiously manage their inventories, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Thursday by the National Retail Federation and trade consultant Hackett Associates.
Import levels are still increasing healthily over the corresponding months from 2009, but that's largely because last year's volumes made for easy comparisons and partly because of real improvements in the economy and consumer spending, said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy.
'But retailers are being cautious as they look at numbers for employment, housing and the availability of credit,' he said. 'There clearly can't be consistent growth in consumer spending when customers don't have jobs. That means retailers are going to have to manage their inventories more carefully as the year progresses. We're still going to see increases in container volume, but not as large as what we've seen so far. As retailers head into the peak shipping season, they will also need to address challenges they are currently facing with lack of vessel capacity and with labor and congestion issues at some of the ports.'
U.S. ports handled 1.25 million TEUs in May, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 10 percent from April and 20 percent from May 2009. It was also the sixth month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines.
Monthly forecasts through November are:
' June, 1.24 million TEUs, a 22 percent increase over last year as summer merchandise arrived on store shelves.
' July, 1.29 million TEUs, up 16 percent.
' August, 1.26 million TEUs, up 9 percent.
' September at 1.29 million TEUs, up 13 percent.
' October, traditionally the highest-volume month of the year as retailers stock up for the holiday season, is forecast at 1.24 million TEUs, up 4 percent.
' November, 1.13 million TEUs, up 3 percent.
The first half of 2010 was estimated at 6.8 million TEUs, up 15 percent from the same period last year. Imports for 2009 totaled 12.7 million TEUs, down 17 percent from 2008's 15.2 million TEUs and the lowest since the 12.5 million TEUs reported in 2003.
'The latest economic indicators are starting to look bleak, including consumer confidence, industrial production and employment numbers,' said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. 'Sales will be slower in July and August; that much is certain. Inventories will rise, resulting in some sharp seasonal volume reductions.'
Hackett added that some of the current surge in container volume reflects the fact that shipping companies have recently restored some of the services that were cut back during the recession of the past two years.
Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Long Angeles-Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.