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Port Tracker reports improving annual volumes, declining sequential volumes

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
November 08, 2010

Even though import cargo volumes at U.S.-based retail container ports declining on a sequential basis, they are up on an annual basis, according to the most recent Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

In September, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S. ports handled 1.34 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU), which was down 6 percent from August’s 1.42 million TEU and up 17 percent compared to September 2009. The report also noted that September marked the tenth straight month to show an annual gain after a 28-month stretch of declines that ended in December 2009.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah.

As LM has reported, what is happening with these volumes is different from a typical year in which October is typically the peak month for import cargo volumes as shippers move cargo into the U.S. via ocean carriers in advance of the holiday rush. But what is happening now, according to the report, is that the peak month for volumes is being bumped up to earlier in the year.

The shift in the peak month from October to August is due to a backlog in cargo from earlier in 2010 when ocean carriers took their time to replace vessels taken out of service during the recession, coupled with retailers bringing merchandise into the U.S. ahead of time to avoid the potential of delays in the fall.

This year began with sequential gains in December and January, followed by a decline in February. March volumes—came in at 1.07 million TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units), which was up 7 percent from February’s 1.01 million TEU and 12 percent year-over-year. April volumes at 1.15 million TEU—were up 7 percent from March and 16 percent year-over-year. And May hit 1.25 million TEU followed by June’s 1.32 million TEU, July’s 1.38 million TEU, August’s 1.42 million TEU, and September’s 1.34 million TEU.

“The biggest takeaway of this report is that Peak Season came about six weeks early,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, in an interview. “Retailers are currently stocked up for Thanksgiving and Holiday Season sales. And when you look at current sales-to-inventory levels you can see there is a slight uptick there…which shows that shipments coming in now are for replacements. There is no big surge occurring to build excess stock.”

The report said that the first half of 2010 came in at 6.9 million TEU for a 17 percent year-over-year gain, with the full year expected to hit 14.6 million TEU for a 15 percent improvement from 2009’s 12.7 million TEU, the slowest year since 2003’s 12.4 million TEU. 2008 hit 15.2 million TEU, the peak in 2007 was 16.5 million TEU.

Looking ahead, Port Tracker is calling for October to come in at 1.29 million TEU for a 9 percent annual gain. November is projected to reach 1.19 million TEU for a 9 percent annual increase, and December is pegged at 1.1 million TEU for a 1 percent gain over 2009. January is expected to hit 1.08 million TEU for a 7 percent increase, and February, which is typically the slowest month of the year, is slated to hit 1.06 million TEU for what would be a 5 percent decrease. And March is calling for 1.04 million TEU, which would be a ten percent decline.

The Port Tracker report pointed out that data beyond March has yet to be tabulated, but it said that a “solid recovery” is expected in the second and third quarters of 2011 following the typical winter slowdown. 

“Retailers know shoppers still have the economy in mind, so they are being very mindful with inventory levels this year,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “The cargo numbers show that retailers are expecting a much better holiday season than they have seen over the past two years, but the industry is still being cautious.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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