Traffic at the nation’s major retail container ports dropped below last year’s levels for the second month in a row in September, and is expected to continue either flat or below last year’s levels for the remainder of the peak shipping season, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Global Insight.

‘Container traffic is expected to continue at a slow pace due to weakness in the US economy,’ Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. ‘Volumes will continue to decline, but all ports are rated low for congestion, as are truck and rail operations.’

‘The low volumes at the ports reflect retailers’ cautious expectations for sales during the holiday season,’ NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. ‘These numbers show that retailers are carefully managing their inventories so that supply won’t exceed demand.’

Ports surveyed handled 1.46 million twenty-foot equivalent Units (teu) of container traffic in September, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That’s down about 6,000 containers, or 0.4%, from August, and 1.9% from September 2006. (August 2007 was down 1.4% from August 2006.)

October, traditionally the peak month of the year as retailers rush to stock shelves for the important holiday season, was estimated at about 3,300 containers short of the record high of 1.51 million teu set in October 2006, or a year-to-year decline of 0.2%. November is forecast essentially flat at 1.41 million teu, about 200 containers short of November 2006. December will see a year-to-year gain of 6.4% at 1.39 million teu, and January will be up 5.9% year-to-year at 1.37 million teu. But February will be down 1.3% year-to-year at 1.29 million teu.