, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released recently by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
"NRF's annual forecast says retailers should see solid growth during the holiday season this year and these cargo numbers back it up," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. "Increased imports show that retailers have gauged the market and expect increased sales."
U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.42 million 20-foot Equivalent Units in August, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 6.7% from July and 3.3% from August 2011. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.
September was estimated at 1.49 million TEU, up 8% from last year, and October is forecast at 1.45 million TEU, up 9.9%. August, September and October are the three busiest months of the year as retailers bring merchandise into the country for the holiday season, and volume for the three months combined is up 7%. While cargo volume doesn't correlate directly with sales, NRF forecast last week that holiday sales will increase 4.1% to $586.1 billion this year.
With most holiday merchandise already at least in distribution centers by the end of October, monthly cargo volume will drop off for the remainder of the year but will remain above 2011 levels. November is forecast at 1.32 million TEU, up 2.4% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.28 million TEU, up 4.6%. After the holidays, January 2013 is forecast to stay at 1.28 million TEU, down one-half of 1% from January 2012, and February is forecast at 1.19 million TEU, up 9% from a year earlier.
The first half of 2012 totaled 7.7 million TEU, up 2.9% from the same period last year. For the full year, 2012 is expected to total 16 million TEU, up 4.1% from 2011.
Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett noted that some retailers brought cargo into the country early because of the threat of a strike when the labor contract covering East Coast and Gulf Coast longshoremen was set to expire Sept. 30. The strike was averted when labor and management agreed to continue talks through Dec. 31.
"Inventories are up, which could be due to lack of demand but it could also be due to pre-stocking in anticipation of the dock strike that didn't come," Hackett said. "Either way, it is within a narrow range of movement and it does not suggest that we are sliding into another 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, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.
The report is free to NRF retail members, and subscription information is available at www.nrf.com/PortTracker.