Retail Stores Stock Up for Holiday Season

Cargo numbers back up as merchants close on annual shipping cycle

The end of October usually marks the beginning of the holiday shopping cycle, as numerous retailers have shelves stocked with the latest consumer products, ready for purchase. And as remaining merchants wrap up the annual shipping cycle for holiday merchandise, import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase approximately 10 percent this month, according to the Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) 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,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, NRF. “Increased imports show that retailers have gauged the market and expect increased sales.”

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 September 30, noted Ben Hackett, Founder of Hackett Associates. But the strike was averted when labor and management agreed to continue talks through December 31.

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.42 million 20-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) in August, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 6.7 percent from July and 3.3 percent from August 2011.

September was estimated at 1.49 million TEU, up eight percent from last year, and October is forecast at 1.45 million TEU, up 9.9 percent. 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 seven percent. While cargo volume doesn’t correlate directly with sales, NRF forecast last week that holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent 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 percent from last year, and December is forecast at 1.28 million TEU, up 4.6 percent. After the holidays, January 2013 is forecast to stay at 1.28 million TEU, down one-half of 1 percent from January 2012, and February is forecast at 1.19 million TEU, up 9 percent from a year earlier.

The first half of 2012 totaled 7.7 million TEU, up 2.9 percent from the same period last year. For the full year, 2012 is expected to total 16 million TEU, up 4.1 percent from 2011.

“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,” said Hackett. “Either way, it is within a narrow range of movement and it does not suggest that we are sliding into another recession.”

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