Augusts retail import volumes are forecast to reach 1.54m containers

August's retail import volumes are forecast to reach 1.54m containers

Import volumes at major US retail container ports are likely to reach an all-time high in August, as retailers rush to bring in holiday merchandise amid concerns a new labour contract for West Coast dockworkers has not yet been agreed.

The Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates expect August import volumes to reach 1.54m containers.

This is the highest monthly volume since NRF launched its Tracker report in 2000, helped by retailers importing higher volumes of merchandise earlier in the year in anticipation of port contract talks.

"The negotiations appear to be going well but each week that goes by makes the situation more critical as the holiday season approaches," said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy.

"Retailers are making sure they are stocked up so shoppers won't be affected regardless of what happens at the ports."

The contract between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) for nearly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 ports expired on 1 July. Dockworkers remain working while negotiations continue.

Cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with sales because they count only the number of cargo containers, not the value of the merchandise inside them. Nonetheless, the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers' expectations.

US ports followed by the report handled 1.48m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in June, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 0.38% from May but up 9.1% from June 2013. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

July was estimated at 1.53m TEU, up 5.8% from the same month last year, and August is forecast at 1.54m TEU, up 3.6% from last year. September is forecast at 1.48m TEU, up 2.8% from last year; October also at 1.48m TEU, up 3.3%; November at 1.37m TEU, up 2%; and December at 1.34m TEU, up 2.1%.

Those numbers would bring 2014 to 17.1m TEU, an increase of 5.2% over 2013's 16.2m. Imports in 2012 totalled 15.8m. The first half of the 2014 reached 8.3m TEU, up 6.9% on last year.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said the expected increases in volume reflect improvements in the economy and retailers importing merchandise early because of the contract negotiations.

"US GDP has increased in 11 out of the last 12 quarters, confirming that we are in a sustained period of expansion," he noted. "A significant portion of the strong upswing in imports has been due to the labour negotiations, with importers moving up shipments just in case."