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December 11, 2017

US retail imports rise as holiday season hits final days

As retailers stock up on the last of their holiday season merchandise, imports at major US retail container ports are expected to rise 1.5% in December over the same month last year, new figures show. 

By Beth Wright

As retailers stock up on the last of their holiday season merchandise, imports at major US retail container ports are expected to rise 1.5% in December over the same month last year, new figures show. 

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NF) and Hackett Associates, the total for 2017 is expected to come to 20m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), topping last year’s previous record of 18.8m TEU by a “healthy” 6.4%. That compares with 2016’s 3.1% increase over 2015.

2017 set an all-time monthly record of 1.8m TEU in August and included five of only seven months when imports have hit 1.7m TEU or higher.

“Retailers are doing last-minute restocking as consumers head toward the finish line of the shopping season, but the majority of holiday merchandise is already in the country and ports are beginning to quiet down,” says NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “With tax cuts that will leave more money in shoppers’ pockets in the headlines and consumer confidence high, all signs are that this has been a strong holiday season.”

He adds, however, that retailers’ ability to provide consumers with quality products at affordable prices could be threatened if the United States pulls out of the North American Free Trade Agreement or engages in other anti-trade policy that fails to recognise the increased employment and other contributions imports make to the nation’s economy.

“Despite constant threats from the administration regarding trade, especially free trade agreements, imports have been riding high,” Gold says. “Concerns continue about what will happen in 2018 and beyond.”

Cargo volume does not correlate directly with 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 1.77m TEU in October, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 0.3% from September and up 5.9% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

November was estimated at 1.64m TEU, down 0.3% from last year, while December is forecast at 1.6m TEU, up 1.5%.

Looking to the New Year, January 2018 is forecast at 1.67m TEU, down 0.5% from January 2017; February at 1.6m TEU, up 11.6% from last year; March at 1.5m TEU, down 2%; and April at 1.66m TEU, up 3.6%. The February and March percentages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting that 2017 retail sales will grow between 3.2% and 3.8% over 2016 and that this year’s holiday sales will be up by between 3.6% and 4%.

“As we close out 2017, we feel very good about the events of the year,” says Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “We expect the coming six months to continue to grow, although at a reduced rate on a year-on-year basis. The second half of 2018 will be weaker than the first half, but recession is not on the horizon.”

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