Back-to-school goods seen lifting July imports at US ports

Customers shop for back-to-school supplies at a Target store in Colma, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Imports of back-to-school goods will help drive "a small-but-significant increase" in July cargo volumes at the nation's top seaports as retailers receive everything from apparel and accessories to school supplies, according to a report Tuesday.

"Back-to-school and the holidays are the two biggest shopping seasons of the year for retailers, and these numbers reflect that," Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, said in a release. "After a year of difficult comparisons in the wake of the West Coast ports slowdown, we're finally starting to see normal trends."

According to information from Global Port Tracker released Tuesday, July's forecast is for major U.S. ports to handle 1.64 million 20-foot equivalent units. That would represent a rise of just 1.4 percent from a year ago. (TEUs, or 20-foot equivalent units, are a common measure of shipping container volumes.)

The Tracker said ports in May handled about 1.63 million TEUs, a nearly 13 percent increase from April's activity and 1.1 percent above May 2015 levels. June was estimated at 1.56 million TEUs, or down 0.5 percent from the year-ago period.

The Port Tracker, produced for the NRF by consulting firm Hackett Associates, tracks container volumes at major ports on the West Coast such as the Los Angeles/Long Beach complex as well as Oakland, Seattle/Tacoma ports. Additionally, it tracks cargo at the New York/New Jersey ports and major seaports in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia.

An American flag flies as cranes for shipping containers stand in the distance at the Port of Los Angeles.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Tracker also predicts "a larger wave (of cargo volumes) in late summer and fall for the holiday shopping season."

The monthly forecast is for August TEU volumes to fall 2 percent and September to slow 2.6 percent. But it sees October monthly volumes growing 4.4 percent and November up by 2.8 percent.

Overall, the first half of 2016 is expected to total 8.99 million TEUs, up 1.5 percent from the like period a year ago. That contrasts with 2015 full-year volumes up 5.4 percent from the prior year.

"Trade is holding on to a small margin of growth, but this growth comes in the face of some adverse statistics as well as positive ones," Hackett founder Ben Hackett said. "The good news is that retail sales have remained positive as the consumer continues to cautiously spend. The hope is that this spending will continue."

The port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container seaport, is expected to report June monthly volumes as early as this week.

On Tuesday, the Port of Long Beach — the nation's second busiest seaport after L.A. — reported imports led to a 3.4 percent rise in June monthly volumes at the Southern California port. The port said imports were up 5.5 percent while exports were flat for the month.

"Our improving cargo volumes reflect the confidence that customers continue to have in the Port of Long Beach," Port of Long Beach CEO Jon Slangerup said in a release. "This is an encouraging sign despite soft consumer demand, high inventory levels and an evolving maritime industry as shipping lines continue to consolidate vessel services."