After several down months of retailers reducing their imports compared to last year, we're likely to see a (slight) turnaround in December.
The monthly Global Port Tracker report, released last week by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, forecasts that import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports should increase 0.3 percent this month compared to December 2010.
Global Port Tracker covers the US 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. It records retail container traffic in Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU), where one TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.
Here is the volume these ports have handled over the past few months:
October (the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available): 1.28 million TEU that was down 3.5 percent from the peak for the year hit in September, and down 5 percent from October 2010.
November (estimated): 1.18 million TEU, down 4.4 percent from November 2010.
For December, the Global Port Tracker report forecasts these ports will handle 1.15 million TEU, up 0.3 percent from last year.
The total for 2011 is forecast at 14.73 million TEU, down one-tenth of 1 percent from last year's 14.75 million TEU.
After December, it's a mixed bag to start the year. Here are the Global Port Tracker forecasts for the first four months of 2012:
January 2012: 1.15 million TEU, down 4.8 percent from January 2011.
February, traditionally the slowest month of the year: 1.04 million TEU, down 5.7 percent.
March: 1.17 million TEU, an increase of 7 percent.
April: 1.22 million TEU, the same as last year.
Since Global Port Tracker counts only the number of cargo containers imported, not the value of their contents, cargo volume does not directly correlate with retail sales. In fact, last week NRF revised its holiday forecast upward, expecting holiday sales to rise 3.8 percent this year to a record $469.1 billion.
"After strong sales reports in October and November, along with a successful Black Friday weekend, retailers are cautiously optimistic that this season will turn out better than initially expected, bringing added stability to our recovering economy at a time when America needs it most," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. "However, a number of factors, including the debt crisis in Europe and continued political wrangling in Washington, could impact consumer spending this holiday season and into 2012."