The nation’s major retail container ports saw an unexpected increase during the industry’s busy holiday season

The nation’s major retail container ports saw an unexpected increase during the industry’s busy holiday season

Import volume at major US retail container ports suggests retailers had a strong holiday season, new figures show, with an expected rise of 5.7% over the same month last year.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, cargo volume for 2016 is now estimated at 18.8m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), up 2.9% from 2015 rather than the 2% previously expected. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2m TEU, up 5.4% from 2014.

"We won't see final sales numbers for a few more days, but import volume suggests that retailers had a strong holiday season," says Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "Retailers don't import merchandise unless they think they can sell it."

Cargo volume does not correlate directly to sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers' expectations.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.64m TEU in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 1.6% from October since most imported holiday merchandise had already arrived but up 11.2% from November last year. Global Port Tracker had previously predicted a year-over-year increase of 3.6 %. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.54m TEU, up 7% from last year, rather than the 3.2% that had been expected.

Moving into the New Year, imports are expected to be up 5.7% in January to 1.57m TEU, while February imports are forecast at 1.52m TEU, down 1.5% on last year. For March, exports are expected to be up 6.5% to 1.41m TEU, in April up 7.3% to 1.55m TEU and in May down 0.5% to 1.61m TEU.

"Economic data is fickle by nature – it surges and falls and often surprises us," says Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, referring to sometimes-contradictory economic numbers seen over the past year. "There is both optimism and pessimism and pointers showing growth as well as decline.