While July numbers are not yet final, cargo volume for the first half of 2017 tentatively totalled 9.7mn Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), up 7.4% from the same period in 2016

While July numbers are not yet final, cargo volume for the first half of 2017 tentatively totalled 9.7mn Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), up 7.4% from the same period in 2016

Boosted by continuing sales growth, August is expected to be the busiest month on record for imports at major US retail container ports and 2017 is on track to set a new annual high, new figures show.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, while July numbers are not yet final, cargo volume for the first half of 2017 tentatively totalled 9.7mn Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), up 7.4% from the same period in 2016.

"Retailers are selling more and that means they need to import more," says Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "With sales showing year-over-year increases almost every month for a long time now, retail supply chains are working hard to keep up. These latest numbers are a good sign of what retailers expect in terms of consumer demand over the next few months."

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 1.69m TEU in June, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 2% from May but up 7.5% from the same month a year ago. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

July was estimated at 1.72 million TEU, up 5.6% from the same time last year.

Looking further ahead, August is forecast at 1.75m TEU, up 2.1% from last year. That would be the highest monthly volume recorded since NRF began tracking imports in 2000, topping the 1.73m TEU seen in March 2015. The 1.7m-plus numbers seen in May and July and now expected for August and October would represent four of the six busiest months in the report's history.

Meanwhile, September is forecast at 1.67m TEU, up 4.7% from last year; October at 1.72m TEU, up 3%; November at 1.62m TEU, down 1.4%, and December at 1.59m TEU, up 1.5%.

Those numbers would bring 2017 to a total of 19.7m TEU, topping last year's previous record of 18.8m TEU by 4.9%. That compares with 2016's 3.1% increase over 2015.

The import numbers come as retail continues a long-term pattern of increased sales. Total retail sales have grown year-over-year every month since November 2009, and retail sales as calculated by NRF – excluding automobiles, gasoline stations and restaurants – have increased year-over-year in all but three months since the beginning of 2010. Retail employment, despite recent short-term fluctuations, has increased by 1.5m jobs during the same period.

NRF has forecast that 2017 retail sales – excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants – will increase between 3.7% and 4.2% over 2016, driven by job and income growth coupled with low debt.

US retail sales set to grow up to 4.2% this year

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett noted that US gross domestic product grew 2.6% in the second quarter of this year, more than double the 1.2% seen in the first quarter.

"This relatively strong growth underlies the robust level of imports we have forecast and witnessed," he adds.