Holiday demand expected to lift import volumes 4.4% in November

Port of Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

A new report predicts major retail container ports will see a 4.4 percent increase in imported cargo volumes this month ahead of the holidays.

The monthly forecast from the Global Port Tracker also indicates that December "should see a slightly larger increase" in retail imports than the November projection. The report, issued by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, also pointed out that cargo volumes for ports covered in the survey rebounded in October after showing a decline in September.

"Retailers are importing more during the holidays this year than last year and that can only mean one thing – they expect to sell more," Jonathan Gold, the federation's vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said in a statement. "Most of the holiday merchandise is already here, but retailers are still restocking to be sure shoppers will have a broad and deep selection as they hit the stores over the next several weeks."

Telsey Advisory pointed out in a research note Tuesday that promotional discounting tied to the holidays has already started and indicated that inventories appear to be "much leaner in the department store channel compared to last year."

Cargo volumes for the full calendar year are expected to be up 2.2 percent from a year ago. It follows the first half of 2016 with a slower 1.6 percent pace in volumes when compared with the year-earlier period. The monthly tracker covers about a dozen ports, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, California, and New York/New Jersey and Miami.

Overall, the federation is still forecasting holiday sales will be up 3.6 percent this year when compared with last year. That is above last year's increase of 3 percent but could prove to be overly optimistic given recent softness in the retail space.

JPMorgan analyst Christopher Horvers said in a note Tuesday that some weak retailer results have raised concerns about the overall consumer retail environment. "If the consumer doesn't bounce post-election, we worry that this late cycle weakness looks more like a recession," he said.

The latest tracker forecast also sees monthly cargo volumes moderating in early 2017. It predicts February cargo volumes will fall 3.2 percent from the year-earlier period after a forecast for January's 3.6 percent growth.

According to Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, U.S. imports continue to grow but at a slower pace than in past years.

"Despite all the good economic news recently, we are faced with imports growing only about 2 percent this year," he said in a release. "Whether that is merely part of the aftermath of the Hanjin bankruptcy or a sign of weakening demand is not yet clear. Unless there is a major disruption, however, growth should be modest but sustained during the first half of 2017."