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Retail imports to improve amid port labor negotiations

Import volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase 3.5% in May as negotiators prepare to begin talks on a new contract for West Coast dockworkers, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released May 7 by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“We’re expecting a lot of cargo to move through the ports this summer and we want to make sure there aren’t any supply chain disruptions that would impact the cargo flow,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president. “We hope there won’t be any issues, but the sooner labor and management can agree on a new contract, the better it will be for everyone who relies on the West Coast ports.”

Representatives of the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are scheduled to begin negotiations next week on a new contract to replace the current agreement that expires June 30. NRF has urged both sides to avoid any disruptions that could affect the flow of back-to-school or holiday season merchandise.

West Coast ports handle more than two-thirds of U.S. retail container cargo each year, including the bulk of cargo from Asia. The last major shutdown there occurred in the fall of 2002, closing ports for 10 days and creating a weeks-long backlog to be cleared.

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.3 million containers (20-foot) in March, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. The number was up 5.1% from February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, and up 14.5% from March 2013.

April was estimated at 1.38 million containers, up 6.1% from the same month last year. May is forecast at 1.44 million containers, up 3.5% from last year; June at 1.43 million containers, up 5.6%, according to NRF.

The total for 2013 was 16.2 million containers up 2.3% from 2012. The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting 4.1% sales growth in 2014. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales but is a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

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“Most economic fundamentals are pointing in the direction of continued, sustained recovery in consumer demand and import volumes,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “This is turning out to be the longest period of growth for some time now.”

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