Import volumes at major US retail container ports are forecast to grow 6.1% in April as retailers stock up for what they expect to be a busy spring and summer.

But retailers are also watching the labour situation at west coast ports to ensure that cargo continues to move smoothly in the wake of negotiations on the current contract for dockworkers due to begin next month.  

"With winter over, retailers are stocking up in anticipation of a busy spring and summer," said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF), which produced the monthly Global Port Tracker with Hackett Associates.

"Consumers can expect plentiful supplies of merchandise."

"A busy time is expected over the next few months, so retailers are keeping a close eye on the labour situation at west coast ports to ensure that cargo continues to move smoothly," Gold said, noting that the current contract for west coast dockworkers expires on 30 June but negotiations are not expected to begin until mid-May. "Companies are already exploring contingency plans in case of a disruption."   

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 1.26m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in February - the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available.

February is historically the slowest month of the year, and the figure was down 8.4% from the prior month and 1.4% from February 2013. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

March was estimated at 1.31m TEU, up 15% from the same month last year. April is forecast at 1.38m TEU, up 6.1% from the prior year; May at 1.44m TEU, up 3.8%; June at 1.43m TEU, up 5.5%; July at 1.49m TEU, up 3.1%, and August at 1.51m TEU, up 1.2%. The first half of the year is expected to total 8.2m TEU, up 5.5% over last year.

The total for 2013 was 16.2m TEU, up 2.3% from 2012's 15.8m TEU. 

"There is positive news with both the rebound in US retail sales in February and the new filings for jobless benefits hitting a fresh three-month low last week, suggesting that the economy is gaining momentum," Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.

"Our forecast continues to reflect the economic rebound and we remain convinced that 2014 will have sustainable growth."