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Imports Recovering, Slowly, After West Coast Port Actions

WASHINGTON — Import cargo volume for the nation’s retailers is beginning to rebound following the long West Coast port labor slowdown, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), an industry trade group.

In its latest monthly “Global Port Tracker” report, produced with Hackett Associates, import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports was projected to rise 8 percent this month over the same time last year, as West Coast ports continue to recover from a backlog of cargo that built up before a tentative new labor agreement was signed.

“Progress is being made, but there’s still a lot of cargo waiting to be loaded onto trucks and trains and moved across the country even after it’s unloaded from the ships,” NRF VP Jonathan Gold said. “The situation is getting better, but we’re still far from normal.”

Indeed, the backlog continues to impact Conn’s, the multiregional appliance, CE and furnishings chain.

In its now-monthly sales update, the retailer reported that reduced inventory stemming from the port disruption negatively impacted same-store sales in March, as it did in the preceding months.

Total same-store sales for the month, ended March 31, decreased 6.8 percent when stacked up against the 18.1 percent increase seen in the prior-year period. Inventory constraints stemming from the port slowdowns contributed to a 10.8 decrease in comps for the furniture category, which is largely imported. Inventory availability is expected to improve, but shortages will continue at least through this month, cautioned Theodore Wright, Conn’s chairman and CEO.

Technically the dispute continues. The Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union tentatively agreed on a five-year contract in February. While ILWU leadership has recommended that members vote for ratification, votes won’t be counted until May 22.

The lack of a contract and operational issues led to crisis-level congestion at the ports after the previous agreement expired last July, and issues were not resolved until a federal mediator and Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined the talks.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.2 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in February, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available and historically the slowest month of the year. That was down 10.3 percent from January and down 3.6 percent from February 2014. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

March was estimated at 1.48 million TEU, up 13.5 percent from 2014. April is forecast at 1.55 million TEU, up 8 percent from last year.

The first half of 2015 is forecast at 8.6 million TEU, an increase of 3 percent over the same period last year.

“The disruption on the West Coast appears to be over and great measures are being taken to clear the backlog of ships sitting offshore,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Of course, all those ships being discharged are causing landside issues as workers try to get containers out of the terminal gates and onto trucks and rail.”