Import numbers show signs of stronger holiday season in 2012

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With retailers smack in the middle of back-to-school, it’s way too early to predict what will happen during the holiday season. NRF’s annual forecast doesn’t come out until October, and lots can happen between now and then. But one set of numbers released this week could give some insight into what retailers are expecting.

NRF’s Global Port Tracker report is showing a strong increase in imports for August, September and October – the three key months of the year when retailers import the bulk of the merchandise they will sell during the holiday season.

August imports are expected to be 6.3 percent higher than last year, September should be up 7.3 percent, and October is forecast at 13.2 percent above last year. Averaged out, that’s an 8.9 percent increase over last year.

Imports fall off in November and December because most holiday merchandise is already on the shelves, but each of those months is, nonetheless, expected to be 2.4 percent above last year.

One factor to keep in mind so we don’t get our hopes up too much: Those numbers don’t translate directly into sales. Port Tracker only counts the number of cargo containers coming into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside. Additionally, the October percentage is artificially high because of low import levels last year. And existing inventory levels aren’t considered. Last year, the same three-month period saw a 4.2 percent decrease in imports, but holiday sales were up 4.1 percent at $471.5 billion.

Nonetheless, the Port Tracker report is a good barometer of what retailers are thinking. It is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, whose economists examine a number of factors to forecast how much cargo will be imported through a dozen key U.S. ports each month. Retailers don’t import merchandise unless they believe they can sell it, so import numbers are considered a good leading indicator of future sales. So good, in fact, that the Federal Reserve is one of the subscribers to the report.

The bottom line? It’s too early to put a number on it, but if imports are up, sales are likely to follow.

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