Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is staying at about the same levels as last year this summer, but is expected to resume increases in the fall, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

"With the economy facing continuing challenges, retailers are managing their inventory levels carefully," said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. "But the increases in import volume expected this fall are a clear sign that retailers are confident consumer demand will be there in the fourth quarter."

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.28 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in May, the latest month for which numbers are available. That was up 6% from April and 1% from May 2010. It was the 18th month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December 2009 broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

June was estimated at 1.31 million TEU, about eight-tenths of 1% down from June 2010 if the estimate holds true when final numbers become available. July is forecast at 1.36 million TEU, which would be a 1.3% decrease from a year ago, and August is forecast at 1.43 million TEU, up 0.6% from last year.

Stronger increases are expected to return in September as retailers begin to stock up for the holiday season, with volume forecast at 1.47 million TEU, up 10 percent from last year. October is forecast at 1.53 million TEU, up 18 %, and November at 1.41 million TEU, up 19%.

The first half of 2011 is estimated at 7.2 million TEU, up 5% from the first half of 2010. Global Port Tracker has been consistently accurate in its projections of a sharp slowdown from the growth rates of last year, and the current 6.2% growth to 15.7 million TEU forecast for 2011 remains realistic under the circumstances. Imports during 2010 totaled 14.7 million TEU, a 16% increase over 2009.

"The low level of inventories-to-sales ratios suggest that import container flows will continue at their suppressed levels for the summer," Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. "On the bright side, there will be no imminent boom or bust in volumes as we experienced in 2007 and 2010."