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US retail container ports set another monthly import record

U.S. retail container ports set their second consecutive monthly import record in August due to strong preparations for the coming holiday season, the National Retail Federation said in its monthly "Global Port Tracker" report.

In their Oct. 10 report, the NRF and maritime consulting firm Hackett Associates said that 1.80 million twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEU, TEU) — a 20-foot-long container or equivalent — were handled at the 13 major U.S. ports they cover, beating the previous record of 1.78 million TEU set in July.

NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said the latest import record is due to an influx of holiday merchandise and could spell good news for the upcoming holiday shopping season.

The retail industry group said in its Oct. 3. holiday shopping forecast that 2017 holiday retail sales are expected to reach between $678.75 billion and $682 billion in November and December, which would mark a 3.6% to 4% increase over 2016.

"When imports break records two months in a row, it's hard to see that as anything other than a good sign about what retailers expect in consumer demand," Gold said. "Consumers are buying more, and everybody from dockworkers to truck drivers is trying to keep up. We hope this is a sign of a strong holiday season for retailers, shoppers and our nation's economy."

Although cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because it only measures the number of containers, the NRF said it provides a barometer of retailers' expectations.

The NRF and Hackett predicted in their Sept. 8 "Global Port Tracker" report that August would see 1.71 million TEU of imports, but the new report beat expectations.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said in a statement accompanying the October report that he expects strong imports to continue through early fall.

"The volume of containers imported through August continues to grow, and we expect this to continue through October before a slack period arrives as the holiday season inventory buildup comes to an end," Hackett said. “We do expect growth in imports to slacken off in the coming year, but it will still remain positive."

The groups said preliminary estimates for September are 1.65 million TEU of imports, which would mark a 3.7% year-over-year rise from 2016, while October is forecast at 1.72 million TEU, a 2.8% yearly increase. The groups also forecast a total of 1.62 million TEU for November, a 1.7% drop from November 2016, and 1.59 million TEU in December, a 1.3% rise from December 2016.

The two firms also forecast that retail imports will be 1.64 million TEU in January 2018, a 2% decline from January 2017, and 1.58 million TEU in February. Total imports for 2017 are projected to total 19.8 million TEU, which would mark an annual import record.

"Global Port Tracker" covers 13 U.S. ports, including the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Miami and New York/New Jersey.