Import cargo volumes at major US retail container ports are forecast to grow 4.8% year-on-year in January, with retailers optimistic for a good start to the year.

The forecast from the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, comes as retailers wait for final figures from the Holiday shopping period. NRF predicted that sales would rise by 3.9% to reach US$602.1bn.

"Retailers are still assessing the holiday season, but they're also looking ahead to see what will happen in the new year," said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. 

"Based on these early numbers, 2014 looks like it should be off to a good start."

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. The amount of merchandise imported nonetheless provides a rough barometer of retailers' expectations.

US ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.37m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 4.3% from October as imports for the holiday season wound down but was up 6.5% from November 2012. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.35m TEU, up 5% from 2012. If that estimate holds true once final numbers are available, 2013 will have totalled 16.3m TEU, up 2.8% over the prior year's 15.8bn TEU. That compares with 3.4% growth in 2012 over 2011.

Imports during August, September and October, the months when most of the holiday season's merchandise is brought into the country, reached 4.35m TEU, up 4.3% on 2012.

January 2014 is forecast at 1.37m TEU, up 4.8% from the same month last year; February at 1.18m TEU, down 7.5% from the prior year; March at 1.32m TEU, up 15.9%; April at 1.4m TEU, up 7.7%; and May at 1.46m TEU, up 4.6%.

"The new year looks to be stronger than the outgoing one, with better-than-expected GDP figures, lower unemployment rates and continued low inflation," said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. "Expectations of a stronger dollar will also help to increase consumer confidence as import prices continue to fall."