Import volume at major U.S. container ports is expected to hit an all-time record in August as retailers concerned about the lack of a West Coast longshoremen’s contract rush to bring holiday season merchandise into the country, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“The negotiations appear to be going well but each week that goes by makes the situation more critical as the holiday season approaches,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Retailers are making sure they are stocked up so shoppers won’t be affected regardless of what happens at the ports.”
Import volume at U.S. ports covered by the Global Port Tracker report is expected to total 1.54 million containers this month. That’s the highest monthly volume since NRF began tracking import volume in 2000, topping a previous record of 1.53 million set in July and unusually high numbers seen this spring as retailers began importing merchandise early in anticipation of this summer’s contract talks.
The contract between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired on July 1. Dockworkers remain on the job as both sides continue to negotiate a new agreement. Both sides have reported that talks have been “productive,” and NRF has urged both labor and management to avoid any disruptions that could affect the flow of back-to-school or holiday merchandise. U.S. ports followed by the report handled 1.48 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in June, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 0.38 percent from May but up 9.1 percent from June 2013. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent. July was estimated at 1.53 million TEU, up 5.8 percent from the same month last year, and August is forecast at 1.54 million TEU, up 3.6 percent from last year. September is forecast at 1.48 million TEU, up 2.8 percent from last year; October also at 1.48 million TEU, up 3.3 percent; November at 1.37 million TEU, up 2 percent; and December at 1.34 million TEU, up 2.1 percent. Those numbers would bring 2014 to a total of 17.1 million TEU, an increase of 5.2 percent over 2013’s 16.2 million. Imports in 2012 totaled 15.8 million. The first half of the 2014 totaled 8.3 million TEU, up 6.9 percent over last year. The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting 3.6 percent sales growth in 2014. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales but is a barometer of retailers’ expectations. Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said the increases in volume reflect both improvements in the economy and retailers importing merchandise early because of the contract negotiations. “U.S. GDP has increased in 11 out of the last 12 quarters, confirming that we are in a sustained period of expansion,” Hackett said. “A significant portion of the strong upswing in imports has been due to the labor negotiations, with importers moving up shipments just in case.”