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Retail imports end 2017 with 7 percent growth as industry sales continue to increase

Staff Reports • Updated Jan 15, 2018 at 2:00 PM

WASHINGTON – Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports grew 7 percent during 2017 compared to 2016 as retail sales continued to increase and the industry wrapped up the year with a strong holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released recently by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Retail had a strong year fueled by growing wages, higher employment and a boost in consumer confidence,” said NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “Retailers imported more merchandise than ever to meet demand for quality products at affordable prices, and growth is expected to continue in the year ahead.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.74 million 20-foot equivalent units in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. With most holiday merchandise already in the country by that point, the number was down 1.7 percent from October but up 5.8 percent year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.6 million TEU, up 2.6 percent year-over-year. The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20.1 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU by 7 percent. That would be more than double 2016’s 3.1 percent increase over 2015. The year set an all-time monthly record of 1.8 million TEU in August, and included five of only seven months on record when imports have hit 1.7 million TEU or higher.

January is forecast at 1.68 million TEU, an increase of 0.2 percent from January 2017; February at 1.62 million TEU, up 12.6 percent from last year; March at 1.5 million TEU, down 2.3 percent; April at 1.66 million TEU, up 3.3 percent, and May at 1.73 million TEU, up 0.4 percent. The February and March percentages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

NRF forecast that 2017 retail sales would grow between 3.2 and 3.8 percent compared to 2016 and that holiday sales would grow between 3.6 and 4 percent. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“On a percentage basis, 2017 was one of the strongest increases we’ve seen since the end of the Great Recession,” said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. “That’s no minor achievement at a time when many are trying to talk down the economy. The rate is expected to slow down some, but with 2017’s performance and continuing high consumer confidence, our models show continued growth in the coming year.”

NRF is the world’s largest retail trade association, representing discount and department stores, home goods and specialty stores, Main Street merchants, grocers, wholesalers, chain restaurants and internet retailers from the United States and more than 45 countries. Retail is the nation’s largest private-sector employer, supporting one in four U.S. jobs – 42 million working Americans. Contributing $2.6 trillion to annual GDP, retail is a daily barometer for the nation’s economy. 

Hackett Associates provides expert consulting, research and advisory services to the international maritime industry, government agencies and international institutions.

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