2008 retail container traffic lowest since 2004

By: | at 07:00 PM | Ports & Terminals  

Cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports fell again in October, and 2008 is now expected to be the slowest year since 2004 as the downturn in the nation’s economy continues, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight.

Volume is projected to total 15.3 million Twenty-Foot-Equivalent Units for the year, compared with 16.5 million TEU in 2007. That would be a decline of 7.1% and the lowest total since 2004, when 14 million TEU moved through the ports. The estimate is down from the 15.43 million projected a month ago, which would have been a 6.5% decline from 2007 and the lowest number since 2005’s 15.4 million TEU. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

“Retail sales forecasts this year are the lowest they’ve been in more than half a decade, and the cargo volume we’re seeing reflects those numbers,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “The balancing act between supply and demand is tougher than ever because retailers want to make sure they have enough merchandise on the shelves to satisfy customers and not be forced into unplanned markdowns to move excess inventory once the holidays are over.”

US ports surveyed handled 1.33 million TEU in September, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. The number was down 2.9% from August and 9.8% from September 2007. October was estimated at 1.36 million TEU, down 5.7% from a year ago. If estimates hold true, October will have been the peak shipping month for 2008 but will have fallen significantly short of the 2007 peak of 1.48 million TEU set last September.

November is forecast at 1.26 million TEU, down 8.7%, and December is forecast at 1.21 million TEU, down 5.5%. January 2009 is forecast at 1.17 million TEU, down 5%, and February – traditionally the slowest month of the year – is forecast at 1.12 million TEU, down 8.3%. The first year-over-year increase in months is expected in March, which is forecast at 1.18 million TEU, a 2.3% increase from March 2008.

Meanwhile, Port Tracker’s congestion rating for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the nation’s two largest retail container ports – continues at medium because collection of fees for the new Clean Truck Program there begins this month.

“The October startup of the Clean Truck Program regulations did not cause the disruptions we had been concerned about, but collection of fees for the program begins this month and it is not clear that all trucks will be ready,” IHS Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. “Despite that, weak import demand has reduced pressure for port truck drivers, so capacity should be adequate.”

The remainder of the US ports covered by Port Tracker – 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 – are rated “low” for congestion, the same as last month.

Port Tracker, which is produced by the economic research, forecasting and analysis firm IHS Global Insight for NRF, looks at inbound container volume, the availability of trucks and railroad cars to move cargo out of the ports, labor conditions and other factors that affect cargo movement and congestion.


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