Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to total 12.5 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) for 2009, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight. The number is significantly below last year’s total but shows improvement from the 12.3 million forecast a month earlier.

“We’re starting to see a pattern where import levels are still below last year but they’re not as far below as they were just a few months ago,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “This matches up with other economic indicators that show the recession may be coming to an end.”

The 12.5 million TEUs now forecast for 2009 would be a drop of 17.7% from last year’s 15.2 million TEUs and the lowest since the 12.47 million TEUs in 2003. The number was revised upward to reflect higher projected imports for each of the remaining months of the year as retailers anticipate that economic conditions will begin to ease.

US ports surveyed handled 1.1 million TEUs in July, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 8% from June but down 17% from July 2008, marking the 25th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline, the groups reported.

Volume for August was estimated at 1.13 million TEUs, down 17% from last year, while September is forecast at 1.11 million TEUs, down 18%. October, traditionally the peak month of the year, is forecast at 1.14 million TEUs, down 17%.

A 2% decline forecast for December is significant because it would be the first single-digit decline of the year and compares with drops that have ranged from 15% to 32% said Gold. But January 2010 is forecast at 1.01 million TEUs, down 18% from January 2009.

“Import container traffic is projected to be weak through January because of the slow pace of recovery from the recession and the slow period that follows the holiday season,” points out Paul Bingham IHS Global Insight Economist. “We are seeing the annual cycle of month-to-month growth that will peak in October, but volume is still below last year’s levels.”