Import Cargo Volume Up for December

A report released Jan. 11 says that import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports showed improvement in December, ending a nearly two-and-a-half-year streak of year-over-year declines.

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, gains are also projected for the first half of this year.

“These numbers are a clear sign that retailers are optimistic about 2010,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said in the release. “Retailers are still going to be cautious with their inventories, but we wouldn’t see these increases in imports if stores weren’t expecting sales to improve. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen year-over-year volume go up, so this is definitely good news.”

U.S. ports handled 1.09 million 20-ft equivalent units (TEUs) in November, the latest month for which actual numbers are available – which was down 8% from October, traditionally the busiest month of the year, and 10% percent from November 2008. One TEU is one 20-ft. container or its equivalent.

November 2009 marked the 28th consecutive month to show a decrease from the same month a year earlier. But the trend was broken in December, which was estimated at 1.08 million TEU, down slightly from November, but a 1.7% increase over December 2008.

Year-over-year increases are expected to continue through the remainder of Global Port Tracker’s six-month forecast range. January is forecast at 1.15 million TEU, a 9% increase over January 2009, and February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.05 million TEU, up 25% from the previous year. March is forecast at 1.16 million TEU, up 21% percent as retailers begin to stock up for spring and summer, April at 1.19 million TEU, up 20%, and May at 1.2 million TEU, up 15%.

But shipping industry experts are cautious about the encouraging forecast based on one month’s worth of numbers. For one, the slight uptick vs. the prior year could be the result of companies wanting to book the expense in 2009 before the year end.

And even if imports are up slightly, it won’t matter much if employment figures don’t improve; retail won’t see any incremental growth unless more consumers have jobs.

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