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  March 31st, 2016 | Written by

Retail Imports Projected to Build Toward Summer

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  • Year-over-year retail import comparisons are complicated because of last year’s situation at west coast ports.
  • Despite lower cargo volumes, shipping lines are adding capacity vessels to routes between Asia and the U.S. West Coast.
  • Shipping lines adding super large-capacity vessels to Asia-U.S. routes will likely bring lower shipping rates.

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports should see its traditional buildup toward the summer despite difficult comparisons with last year’s unusual patterns, according to the most recent monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the Washington, D.C.-headquartered National Retail Federation (NRF).
“Comparisons are still complicated because of last year’s situation at the West Coast ports but should clear up in the second half of the year,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “Year-over-year numbers are skewed but on a monthly basis imports are building normally as the back-to-school season approaches.”

The Global Port Tracker covers container activity at the U.S. West Coast ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, and Tacoma; New York/New Jersey, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.
Those ports handled 1.5 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) in January, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 4.4 percent from December and 21.4 percent from unusually low figures in January 2015, the month before a new contract with dockworkers was signed to end a near-shutdown at West Coast ports.
February was estimated at 1.4 million TEU, up 17.1 percent from the same month in 2015 and also skewed by last year’s congestion.

When the final figures are compiled, March is forecast at 1.35 million TEU, down 22.2 percent from the flood of traffic seen as the backlog of cargo began to move through ports at this time last year.

April is forecast at 1.49 million TEU, down 1.8 percent from last year; May at 1.56 million TEU, down 3.4 percent; June at 1.54 million TEU, down 1.6 percent; and July at 1.61 million TEU, down 0.4 percent.
According to the NRF forecast, the first half of 2016 is expected to total 8.8 million TEU, down 0.2 percent from the same period in 2015. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEU, up 5.4 percent from 2014.
With cargo volume down so far this year, recent decisions by major shipping lines to add new super-large capacity vessels to routes between Asia and the U.S. West Coast are likely to bring lower shipping rates at the risk of “chaos” in the balance between supply and demand, said Ben Hackett, head of Hackett Associates, which compiled the report.

“Does this make sense? Absolutely not,” he said. “It flies in the face of financial and economic wisdom and totally ignores the state of the freight market.”