NRF: Imports Level Off But ‘Warehouses Are Full’ Entering Holiday Season

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The usually bleak retail headlines seemed to take a turn this holiday season, reporting months of record-setting volume as retailers stocked up for what is projected to be a busy holiday season. Now, we’ve reached that time where imports level off at the nation’s major container ports and will be relatively flat compared to the same time last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The stores and warehouses are full, and it’s time for the shopping to begin,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold reports. “Retailers have been bringing in merchandise since late summer, and supply is ready to meet the increased demand that has been building throughout the year.”

“At this time of year, it’s important to remember the role imports play in making the holidays affordable for American families and the millions of U.S. jobs behind every product on the shelf regardless of where it is made,” Gold adds. “Our nation needs to avoid trade wars and other misguided trade policy that would drive up consumer prices or cost American workers their jobs.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.76 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in September, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was a 2.3% decrease from the record-setting 1.8 million TEU recorded in August, but still a 10.5 % increase year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

October was estimated at 1.75 million TEU, up 4.9% from last year. While not records, the September and October numbers were among only six times that monthly volume has hit 1.7 million TEU or higher since NRF began tracking imports in 2000.

November is forecast at 1.63 million TEU, down 0.5% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.6 million TEU, up 2%.

The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU by 6.3%. That compares with 2016’s 3.1% increase over 2015. The first half of 2017 totaled 9.7 million TEU, up 7.5% from the same period in 2016.

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 grow between 3.6 and 4%. 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.

“This has turned out to be a boom year for growth in import cargo volume,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett notes. “It reflects strong growth in spending by U.S. consumers.”

After a record-setting year, however, the rate of import growth is expected to slow in 2018. “We see no decline in volume and no recession – just time out for a breather,” Hackett says.

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