(Adds comment from AlixPartners' director)
Dec 8 (Reuters) - Imports by retailers are estimated to rise 1.5 percent in December, indicating that companies are expecting strong sales through the holiday season, according to industry group National Retail Federation (NRF).
Major U.S. retail container ports are expected to handle 1.6 million TEUs in December, according to the NRF's monthly Global Port Tracker report. A TEU is a 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
"Retailers are doing last-minute restocking as consumers head toward the finish line of the shopping season," Jonathan Gold, NRF's vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said.
More than 174 million U.S. shoppers made purchases over the Thanksgiving weekend and Cyber Monday, the NRF said last week, beating the industry group's expectations and signaling a strong start to the holiday quarter.
"With tax cuts that will leave more money in shoppers' pockets in the headlines and consumer confidence high, all signs are that this has been a strong holiday season," Gold said.
Most retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Macy's Inc, headed into the holiday season with leaner inventories than previous years as they try to reduce the risk of ending the holidays with huge amounts of leftover inventory.
The core reason for the expected rise in imports is more an indicator of optimism for 2018 as companies try to better position their inventories in an improving economy, said Bill Lewis, director at consulting firm AlixPartners.
Ports covered by the Global Port Tracker handled 5.9 percent more TEUs in October from last year, while for November those were estimated to be down 0.3 percent.
"The fact that imports are still at a relatively high level and increasing over last year reflects that sales are doing well retailers don't import merchandise unless they think they can sell it," Craig Shearman, NRF's vice president for government affairs public relations, said. (Reporting by Sruthi Ramakrishnan in Bengaluru; Editing by Martina D'Couto)