Retail Imports End 2017 With 7 Percent Growth

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports grew 7 percent during 2017 over 2016 as retail sales continued to increase and the industry wrapped up the year with a strong holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Retail had a strong year fueled by growing wages, higher employment and a boost in consumer confidence,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Retailers imported more merchandise than ever to meet demand for quality products at affordable prices, and growth is expected to continue in the year ahead.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.74 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. With most holiday merchandise already in the country by that point, the number was down 1.7 percent from October but up 5.8 percent year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.6 million TEU, up 2.6 percent year-over-year. The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20.1 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU by 7 percent. That would be more than double 2016’s 3.1 percent increase over 2015. The year set an all-time monthly record of 1.8 million TEU in August, and included five of only seven months on record when imports have hit 1.7 million TEU or higher.

January is forecast at 1.68 million TEU, up 0.2 percent from January 2017; February at 1.62 million TEU, up 12.6 percent from last year; March at 1.5 million TEU, down 2.3 percent; April at 1.66 million TEU, up 3.3 percent, and May at 1.73 million TEU, up 0.4 percent. The February and March percentages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

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NRF forecast that 2017 retail sales would grow between 3.2 and 3.8 percent over 2016 and that holiday sales would grow between 3.6 and 4 percent, but year-end numbers will not be released by the Census Bureau until Friday. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“On a percentage basis, 2017 was one of the strongest increases we’ve seen since the end of the Great Recession,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “That’s no minor achievement at a time when many are trying to talk down the economy. The rate is expected to slow down some, but with 2017’s performance and continuing high consumer confidence, our models show continued growth in the coming year.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Los 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.

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