Retail imports to increase while longshoremen strike looms

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase 2.3% in January over the same month last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Meanwhile, port workers say they’re ready to strike at East Coast and Gulf Coast docks.

“The strike deadline came and went at the end of December, but the threat of closing down nearly half our nation’s port capacity has only been postponed, not eliminated,” said Jonathan Gold, VP supply chain and customs policy for the NRF. “The uncertainty of what will happen in February has retailers implementing expensive contingency plans yet again and is a burden our economy cannot afford.”

The latest extension of contract talks between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance runs through Feb. 6 and comes after previous strike deadlines in September and October. The union and management are scheduled to meet next week under the supervision of federal mediators, but the ILA walked away from local talks affecting the Ports of New York and New Jersey earlier this week. A strike would close 14 ports from Maine to Texas where nearly 15,000 dockworkers handle 40% of the nation’s ocean cargo. 

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.25 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. With most holiday merchandise already in the country, that figure was down 8.6% from October, and down 2.8% from November 2011. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent. 

December was estimated at 1.3 million TEU, up 6.5% from last year. January is forecast at 1.31 million TEU, up 2.3% from January 2012. February is projected at 1.15 million TEU, up 6%, and March at 1.25 million TEU, up 0.5%. April and May are expected at 1.33 million TEU (a 1.7% rise) and 1.42 million TEU (3.4% increase), respectively.

The first half of 2012 totaled 7.7 million TEU, up 3% from the same period last year. For the full year, 2012 was estimated at 15.8 million TEU, up 2.9% from 2011. 

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said there were signs that retailers brought merchandise into the country early as the ILA’s Dec. 29 strike deadline approached.

“We have seen a rise in the level of the retail inventory-to-sales ratio,” Hackett said. “This may be a reflection of importers stocking up ahead of the East Coast/Gulf coast port strike that was expected, though the run-up came well ahead of that.”

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.