Although import cargo volume at container ports should be up 16 percent in July over the same month last year, these double-digit increases are expected to taper off this fall, as retailers cautiously manage their inventories
, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

"We are still seeing increases in imports, partly because last year's volumes made for easy comparisons and partly because of real improvements in the economy and consumer spending," said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "But retailers are being cautious as they look at numbers for employment, housing and the availability of credit. There clearly can't be consistent growth in consumer spending when customers don't have jobs. That means retailers are going to have to manage their inventories more carefully as the year progresses."

In May, U.S. ports handled 1.25 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, or TEUs, up 10 percent from April and 20 percent from May 2009. May marked the sixth month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement, after December broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

"We're still going to see increases in container volume, but not as large as what we've seen so far," said Gold. "As retailers head into the peak shipping season, they will also to need to address challenges they are currently facing with lack of vessel capacity and with labor and congestion issues at some of the ports."

According to the report, June should be at 1.24 million TEU, a 22 percent increase over last year, a reflection of summer merchandise arriving on store shelves. July is forecast at 1.29 million TEU, up 16 percent from last year; August at 1.26 million TEU, up 9 percent; and September at 1.29 million TEU, up 13 percent. October, typically the highest-volume month of the year, should reach 1.24 million TEU, up 4 percent, with November projected at 1.13 million TEU, up 3 percent.

The first half of 2010 was estimated at 6.8 million TEU, a 15 percent gain from the same period last year. Imports for 2009 totaled 12.7 million TEU, down 17 percent from 2008's 15.2 million TEU and the lowest since 2003.

"The latest economic indicators are starting to look bleak, including consumer confidence, industrial production and employment numbers," said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. "Sales will be slower in July and August; that much is certain. Inventories will rise, resulting in some sharp seasonal volume reductions."

Hackett said some of the current surge in container volume reflects the fact that shipping companies have recently restored some of the services that were cut back during the recession.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Long Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.