Traffic at the nation’s major retail container ports ended a four-month slump in December, rising above the previous year’s level for the first time since mid-summer, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Global Insight.

‘Retailers were managing their inventories very carefully during the holiday shopping season, and their efforts worked well,’ NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. ‘Month-to-month numbers are declining as we head into the winter slow season, but we’re starting to see increases again when year-to-year numbers are compared.’

‘All the US ports we cover are operating without congestion from the harbor to the gate and are rated low for congestion through the spring,’ Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. ‘Rail performance measures continued to be adequate in December. Intermodal rail operations are also performing adequately, and are expected to continue to do so over the next six months.’

Ports surveyed handled 1.38 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (teu) of container traffic in November, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. The number was down 4.4% from October’s 1.44 million teu, and 2.2% from November 2006. That made November the fourth month in a row to show a decline from the same month a year earlier as retailers reduced imports in anticipation of a slower holiday season. (August was down 1.4%, September 1.9% and October 3.5%.)

December, however, was estimated at 1.35 million teu, up 3.3% from December 2006. While the number was down from November’s total, it marked the first time since July that the monthly figure was an increase from the same month in 2006.

January 2008 is forecast at 1.31 million teu, up 1.8% from January 2007. February ’ traditionally the slowest month of the year ’ is expected to be down 5.5% from February 2007 at 1.24 million teu. But year-over-year increases should resume in March, which is expected to be up 6.3% over March 2007 at 1.35 million teu. April is forecast at 1.43 million teu, up 8.1%, and May is forecast at 1.44 million teu, up 4.4%. One teu is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

All US ports covered by Port Tracker ’ Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma and Seattle on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast ’ are all currently rated ‘low’ for congestion, the same as last month.