Import cargo volume will reach near-peak levels in September even as retailers work to deal with the Hanjin bankruptcy

Import cargo volume will reach near-peak levels in September even as retailers work to deal with the Hanjin bankruptcy

September should see near-peak levels for import cargo volume at major US retail container ports despite retailers working to cope with the Hanjin Shipping bankruptcy.

According to the Global Port Tracker report just released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, cargo volume for the whole of 2016 should see a 1.8% increase on last year.

The projection comes despite retailers facing disruption as they head into their busiest season after the South Korean company, the world's seventh-largest container shipper, filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of last month.

Retailers face shipping chaos following Hanjin bankruptcy

Early reports suggested Hanjin ships were refused permission to offload or take aboard containers, leading to potential delays to deliveries, and that some ships in China were seized on behalf of creditors. New information suggests Hanjin has been granted provisional protection from creditors in the US, enabling some vessels to dock and unload at US ports.

Even so, the NRF and Hackett Associates predict import cargo volume will reach near-peak levels this month.

"Hanjin should not significantly affect volume for the month since alternative arrangements to unload those containers or shift cargo elsewhere should be dealt with by the time the numbers are tallied," says Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "But millions of dollars worth of merchandise is in limbo at the moment, and retailers are working hard to make sure it ends up on store shelves in time for the holidays."

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.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.63m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in July, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 3.2% from June and up 0.7% from July of last year. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

August was estimated at 1.67m TEU, down 0.4% from last year, and is expected to have been the busiest month of the annual shipping cycle buildup to the holiday shopping season. September is forecast at 1.62m TEU, down 0.2% from last year; October at 1.63m TEU, up 5.3% from last year; November at 1.53m TEU, up 3.8%, and December at 1.49m TEU, a rise of 3.6%.

Those numbers should bring 2016 to a total of 18.6m TEU, up 1.8% from last year. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2m TEU, up 5.4% from 2014. The first half of 2016 totalled 9m TEU, up 1.6% from the same period in 2015.

Meanwhile, January 2017 is forecast at 1.53m TEU, up 2.8% from January of this year.

"Despite the apparent slowdown in economic activity being reported around the world, the volume of imports continues to grow slowly, much along the lines that we have been projecting," adds Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett.