Retail Imports Spike as Contract Deadline Approaches

globalporttrackerRetail Imports Spike as Contract Deadline Approaches

Washington—Import volume at major U.S. container ports is expected to increase 7.5% this month as retailers bring unusually high quantities of merchandise into the country early to avoid any potential disruptions after the labor contract with West Coast dockworkers expires, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“We don’t want to see disruptions at the ports but retailers are making sure they are prepared in case that happens,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Whether it’s bringing cargo in early or other contingency plans, retailers will keep the shelves stocked for the back-to-school and holiday seasons. We don’t want to see disruptions at the ports but retailers are making sure they are prepared in case that happens.”

Contract Negotiations Continue

The Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union began negotiations last month on a new contract to replace the agreement that expires June 30. NRF has urged both sides to avoid any disruptions that could affect the flow of back-to-school or holiday merchandise.

West Coast ports handle more than two-thirds of U.S. retail container cargo, including the bulk of cargo from Asia. The last major coast-wide shutdown there occurred in the fall of 2002, closing ports for 10 days and creating a months-long backlog to be cleared.

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.43 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in April, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. The number was up 9.9% from March and 10.3% from April 2013. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

May was estimated at 1.47 million TEU, up 5.8% from the same month last year, and June is forecast at 1.46 million TEU, up 7.5% from last year. Both are unusually high numbers not normally seen until later in the summer or fall, a sign that retailers have begun bringing imported merchandise into the country early because of the uncertainty of what could happen when the labor contract expires.

July is forecast at an even-higher 1.51 million TEU, up 4.4% from last year; August at 1.52 million TEU, up 1.9%; September at 1.45 million TEU, up 0.8%; and October at 1.48 million TEU, up 3.4%.

The first half of the year is expected to total 8.3 million TEU, up 6.5% over last year. The total for 2013 was 16.2 million TEU, up 2.3% from 2012’s 15.8 million TEU.

The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting 4.1% sales growth in 2014. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales but is a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said inventory levels were up earlier in the year as a severe winter kept shoppers at home and retailers began stocking up in advance of the port negotiations.

“The weather is behind us and inventories are coming down as the consumer ventures out and West Coast dockworkers and management remain at the bargaining table,” Hackett said. “The real question is how long can the economic expansion continue?”

About Global Port Tracker

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast. The report is free to NRF retail members, and subscription information is available at www.nrf.com/PortTracker or by calling (202) 783-7971. Subscription information for non-members can be found at www.globalporttracker.com.

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