Traffic at the nation’s major retail container ports dropped below last year’s levels for the fourth month in a row in November as merchants continued to carefully manage inventories in anticipation of a restrained holiday shopping season, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Global Insight.

‘The slow pace of container traffic growth is forecast to continue due to weakness in the US economy,’ Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. ‘All covered US ports are operating without congestion from the harbors to the gates and are rated low for congestion through spring.’

‘Retailers are carefully managing their inventories so that they won’t be forced into unplanned discounts,’ NRF Vice-President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. ‘Matching supply to demand is a basic principle of sound business practices.’

Ports surveyed handled 1.46 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (teu) of container traffic in October, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That’s down 1.3% from September’s 1.48 million teu, and 3.5% from the record high 1.51 million teu set in October 2006.

October is traditionally the peak month of the year as retailers stock up for the holiday season, but the figures left September as the peak month for 2007.

November was estimated at 1.36 million teu, down 3.5% from a year ago. If the estimate holds true when actual numbers come in, it will mark the fourth month in a row that cargo failed to meet last year’s levels. (August was down 1.4% from August 2006 and September was down 1.9% from September 2006.)

Volume will continue to trend downward through February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, but levels should be above last year in most months. December is forecast at 1.34 million teu, up 2.6% from December 2006, and January 2008 is forecast at 1.31 million teu, up 1.1% from January 2007. February 2008 is forecast at 1.23 million teu, down 6.1% from February 2007. March 2008 is forecast at 1.35 million teu, up 6% from March 2007, and April 2008 is forecast at 1.43 million teu, up 7.8% from April 2007.

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.

Port Tracker, which is produced by the economic research, forecasting and analysis firm Global Insight for NRF, looks at inbound container volume, the availability of trucks and railroad cars to move cargo out of the ports, labor conditions and other factors that affect cargo movement and congestion.