Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is expected to be up 8% in January over the same month last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“While the economy clearly began to recover in 2010 and drove up cargo volume as retail sales improved, maintaining that momentum in 2011 could be difficult,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Consumers faced with continued high unemployment are expected to focus more on necessities than discretionary spending. Retailers will continue to carefully gauge consumer demand and adjust import levels accordingly.”

U.S. ports handled 1.23 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in November, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 1.6% from October as stocking up for the holiday season wound down, but up 13% from November 2009. It was the 12th month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December 2009 broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.16 million TEU, a 7% increase over December 2009. January is forecast to stay at that level, but the figure will represent an 8% increase over January 2010. February is forecast at 1.14, up 13% from a year earlier; March at 1.18 million TEU, up 9%; and April at 1.21, up 7%. May is forecast at 1.24, down 2% from last year.

The first half of 2010 totaled 6.9 million TEU, up 17% from the same period in 2009. The full year is estimated at 14.8 million TEU, also up 17%. The 12.7 million TEU seen in 2009 was the lowest since the 12.5 million TEU reported in 2003. The 2010 number remains below the 15.2 million TEU seen in 2008 and the peak of 16.5 million TEU seen in 2007.

“Our projections for 2011 remain firm, albeit not at the levels of the recovery rates of last year,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Growth in the upper single-digit levels can be expected, particularly on the West Coast.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Long Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.