Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports should be up 0.3% in December compared with the same month last year as retailers head to the finish line of the holiday shopping season.

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, December's expected uptick won't be large, but it comes after several months where retailers had reduced their imports from last year.

"It's a positive sign by comparison," says National Retail Federation Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, Jonathan Gold. "Retailers are placing a cautious bet that consumer demand is increasing."

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.28 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in October, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 3.5% from the peak for the year hit in September, and down 5% from October 2010. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

November was estimated at 1.18 million TEU, down 4.4% from a year ago, while December is forecast at 1.15 million TEU, up 0.3% from last year.

After the holidays, January 2012 is forecast at 1.15 million TEU, down 4.8% from January 2011. February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.04 million TEU, down 5.7%; March is expected to see 1.17 million TEU, an increase of 7%; and April is forecast at 1.22 million TEU, the same as last year.

The total for 2011 is forecast at 14.73 million TEU, down one-tenth of 1 percent from last year's 14.75 million TEU.

Global Port Tracker counts only the number of cargo containers imported, not the value of their contents, so cargo volume does not directly correlate with retail sales. NRF is forecasting 2.8% growth in holiday sales during November and December over last year, for a total of $465.6 billion.

"We expect to see a mini-resurgence in December," Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. "With consumer spending on the rise, it would seem that the pace of retail sales will continue through to the New Year's sales at least."

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