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Retail import volume remains low

Cargo containers still below 1 million mark

Washington -- Import cargo volume improved in March at the nation’s major retail container ports, but still hovered at its lowest level in five years, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and HIS Global Insight.

 “Cargo that came across the docks in March is in the stores now, so these numbers show us that retailers expect slow sales this spring and summer, and have been cautious in the amount of merchandise that they’ve ordered,” NRF vp for supply chain and Customs policy Jonathan Gold said. “Month-to-month numbers are rising but we’re still expecting significantly lower quantities of merchandise being imported than we saw last year.”

U.S. ports surveyed handled 984,633 twenty-foot equivalent units in March, the most recent month for which hard numbers are available. That was up 16.8% from February’s 842,882 TEU, which was the lowest level since March 2002, but still down 15 percent from March 2008. The March 2009 number is the next-lowest since the 901,497 seen in February 2004, and marks the 21st month in a row to see a year-over-year decline. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

Volume for April fell an estimated 18%. In fact, the Port Tracker anticipates double-digit year-over-year declines in container volume through the second and third quarters: May down 19%; June down 16%; July down 15%; August down 15.8%; and September down 17%.

The first half of 2009 is now forecast at 6.1 million TEU, down 19%.

“The monthly numbers are on their way back up but that’s really just the shipping cycle we see every year whether we’re in a recession or not,” IHS Global Insight economist Paul Bingham said. “The real rebound is still in the future.”

U.S. ports covered by Port Tracker include Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast. All are currently rated “low” for congestion, the same as last month.

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