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Surge of holiday retail goods is starting at U.S. ports

September 21, 2011 | 11:16 am

Tugs assist and MOL ship at it prepares to dock at the TraPac terminal at the Port of Los AngelesThe relative doldrums for import cargo traffic through the nation's major seaports are finally over, according to a report released this week by the Washington consulting firm Hackett Associates.

The group was predicting an 11.8% increase in cargo for September, compared with the same month last year, as retailers gear up for having goods on store shelves for the end of the year holidays.

That would end a summer-long downturn at the nation's major trade gateways and provide a welcome  employment boost for workers all along the international trade supply chain. Those jobs include the longshore workers who load and unload ships, short-haul and long-haul truck drivers, railroad employees and warehouse and distribution center staff, to name a few.

"With the most crucial spending period of the year just weeks away, retailers have made careful decisions on the amount of merchandise they need to properly stock their stores during the holidays,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, which commissions the monthly Global Port Tracker report.

Gold added that 2011 has been a very different year for goods movement than 2010, when retailers were shipping goods much earlier to restock inventories that had reached record low levels. “This year, retailers have the luxury of importing holiday goods later than last year, which better ensures their inventory levels will accurately meet consumer demand," Gold said.

The surge in imported goods is expected to continue through October, with Hackett Associates predicting an increase of 9.5%, compared with October, 2010. An increase of 8% is expected in November, as the surge begins to taper off. By December, cargo movement through the ports is expected to be only 4.5% above the year earlier totals.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, cautioned against expectations of a sustained recovery in goods movement beyond the end of 2011, saying that there were too many uncertainties about the strength of the U.S. economy.

“We should not be lulled into too much confidence by the relatively strong import volumes of August and September,” Hackett said. “These are linked to the low levels of inventory that needed to be raised to meet the return-to-school and post-Thanksgiving sales. The third quarter will be positive for the ocean carriers and retailers but that will turn into negative growth" in 2012.

The Global Port Tracker report covers the U.S. trade gateways of Long Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York-New Jersey, Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, and Houston. It focuses solely on imports and does not count U.S.-produced goods that are destined for sale overseas.


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Photo: Tugboats assist an MOL container ship at it prepares to dock at the TraPac terminal at the Port of Los Angeles. Credit: Port of Los Angeles

-- Ronald D. White