Cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to decline four percent in 2008 compared with 2007 because of the nation’s slow economy, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Global Insight.

Volume is projected to total 15.8 million Twenty-Foot-Equivalent Units for the year, compared with 16.4 million teu in 2007. Cargo volume each month this year has been below the same month last year, and is expected to continue to be below last year’s levels in each remaining month except October and December. One teu is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

‘This has been a very challenging year, and cargo volume reflects consumer demand as retailers work to keep inventory as tight as possible in order to keep supply and demand in balance,’ NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. ‘If merchants can avoid having excess merchandise on hand it means they can avoid the need for unplanned markdowns to clear their shelves, especially after the holiday season.’

US ports surveyed handled 1.3 million teu in June, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. The number was down 0.3% from May and10.3% from June 2007.

July was estimated at 1.37 million teu, down 5.2% from a year ago, and August is forecast at 1.42 million teu, down 2.7%. September is forecast at 1.4 million teu, down 4.9%, but October is forecast to be up 1.1% at 1.46 million teu. October should be the peak month of the year, though it will fall short of the 1.48 million teu peak for 2007 set last September. November is forecast at 1.37 million teu, down 0.3%, and December at 1.32 million teu, up 3.4%.

Meanwhile, all US ports covered by Port Tracker ’ Los 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 ’ are rated ‘low’ for congestion, the same as last month.

The US West Coast longshore labor union contract expired on July 1, but any major labor-related slowdown was avoided when the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union announced July 28 that they had reached tentative agreement on a new six-year contract. The ports are working under the terms of the previous contract until the new pact can be ratified.

‘As predicted, terms of the new contract were reached without any significant work interruption,’ Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. ‘The only other major issue affecting port labor, the implementation of the Transportation Worker Identity Credential program, has been delayed, so this concern has been pushed out to 2009. Port and related transportation labor is expected to continue to be adequate. The covered ports are operating without congestion from the harbor to the gates and are expected to continue to do so.’