Import cargo volume at the nations major retail container ports is expected to be up 8% in April compared with the same month a year ago, and solid increases are expected to continue through the summer as the U.S. economy improves, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Retail sales are starting to improve and retailers are importing merchandise in the quantities they need to meet that demand, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. We expect these numbers to continue to climb as merchants and their customers move away from the recession and back toward normal shopping habits.

U.S. ports handled 1.01 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in February, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 6% from January as shipping hit its traditional slow point for the year but up 20% from the unusually low numbers seen during February 2009. It was also the third month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year monthly declines. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

March was estimated at 1.02 million TEU, a 6% increase over last year as spring products began to head for store shelves. April is forecast at 1.07 million TEU, up 8% from last year; May at 1.12 million TEU, up 7%; June at 1.18 million TEU, up 17%; July at 1.24 million TEU, up 12%; and August at 1.32 million TEU, up 15%.

The first half of 2010 is expected to total 6.5 million TEU, up 10%. Imports for 2009 totaled 12.7 million TEU, down 17% from 2008s 15.2 million TEU and the lowest since the 12.5 million TEU reported in 2003. The forecast for first-half growth is down from the 17% increase projected a month ago as more recent data becomes available.

Port volumes have begun to rebound and we expect growth to continue going forward, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. Retailers were maintaining lean inventories during the recession but are carefully building back up.