December import volume is expected to total 1.37m containers

December import volume is expected to total 1.37m containers

Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is expected to continue to slow down this month, with most holiday merchandise safely in the country despite significant congestion impacting West Coast ports.

The Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates expects December import volume to total 1.37m containers - down from an all-time record of 1.59m containers in September as retailers rushed to bring merchandise into the country ahead of any disruption on the docks.

The contract between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired on 1 July, prompting concerns about potential disruptions that could affect holiday merchandise. The lack of a contract and other operational issues have led to crisis-level congestion at the ports, and NRF last month asked President Obama to engage with the parties and encourage the use of a federal mediator to help with negotiations.

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.

The 1.56m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) handled in October, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available, was down 2% from September but up 8.5% from October 2013. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

November was estimated at 1.41m TEU, up 4.8% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.37% TEU, up 3.8%.

Those numbers would bring 2014 to a total of 17.2m TEU, an increase of 6.2% over 2013's 16.2m. Imports in 2012 totalled 15.8m. The first half of 2014 totalled 8.3m TEU, up 7% on last year.

January 2015 is forecast at 1.41m TEU, up 2.5% from January 2014, February at 1.34m TEU, up 8% from last year, March at 1.33m TEU, up 2.2%, and April at 1.46m TEU, up 2.1%.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said issues on the West Coast have prompted some retailers and other shippers to import their cargo through East Coast ports instead.

"The question is whether cargo currently being diverted to the East Coast will shift back to the West Coast once congestion in Los Angeles/Long Beach ends or are we experiencing a longer-term shift? Time will tell," he added.