Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is expected to be down 6.8% in February from a year ago, but it should show year-over-year increases through most of the remaining first half of 2012,
according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

"With consumer confidence building, retailers are optimistic that the economy is recovering but are continuing to be cautious with their inventory levels," says Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "Merchants want to be sure that growth will be sustained and that demand will be there to meet supply."

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.17 million 20-foot Equivalent Units in December, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 6% from November since holiday merchandise was already on the shelves but up 2% from December 2010 and brought 2011 to a close at 14.8 million TEU, up 0.4% from 2010's 14.75 million TEU.

One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

The month-by-month estimates are as follows:
-January 2012 was estimated at 1.17 million TEU, down 3.3% from January 2011
-February, historically the slowest month of the year, is forecast at 1.03 million TEU, down 6.8% from last year.
- March is forecast at 1.18 million TEU, up 8.6%.
-April is forecast at 1.25 million TEU, up 2.4%.
-May is forecast at 1.28 million TEU, down 0.7 %
-June is forecast at 1.28 million, up 3%.

The first half of 2012 should total 7.18 million TEU, up 0.5% from the same period last year.

"Current statistics suggest that the economy will continue to improve as we continue into 2012," says Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. "The question is will wholesalers and retailers be able to manage their inventories as well as they did in 2011? Most likely, yes."