Imports at the United States’ major retail container ports saw an unexpected increase during the industry’s busy holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
“We won’t see final sales numbers for a few more days, but import volume suggests that retailers had a strong holiday season,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Retailers don’t import merchandise unless they think they can sell it.”
Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.64 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 1.6 percent from October since most imported holiday merchandise had already arrived but up 11.2 percent from November 2015. Global Port Tracker had previously predicted a year-over-year increase of 3.6 percent. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
December was estimated at 1.54 million TEU, up 7 percent year-over-year rather than the 3.2 percent that had been expected.
Cargo volume does not correlate directly to sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations. NRF’s annual forecast called for $655.8 billion in 2016 holiday sales during November and December, a 3.6 percent increase over 2015. November sales were up 5 percent year-over-year, and the Commerce Department is scheduled to release December numbers on Friday.
Cargo volume for 2016 is now estimated at 18.8 million TEU, up 2.9 percent from 2015 rather than the 2 percent previously expected. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEU, up 5.4 percent from 2014.
January is forecast at 1.57 million TEU, up 5.7 percent from January 2016; February at 1.52 million TEU, down 1.5 percent from last year; March at 1.41 million TEU, up 6.5 percent from last year; April at 1.55 million TEU, up 7.3 percent, and May at 1.61 million TEU, down 0.5 percent.
“Economic data is fickle by nature – it surges and falls and often surprises us,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said, referring to sometimes-contradictory economic numbers seen over the past year. “There is both optimism and pessimism and pointers showing growth as well as decline.”