Port traffic on the West coast is down significantly. Expected traffic for September is also way lower. Yet analysts have been busy raising expectations for the holiday season. One thing for sure, one group is wrong.

Please consider the New York Times article A Contradiction in the Cargo

When retailers expect that Americans will be crowding into their stores, their orders pile into the nation’s ports in August and September for delivery to stores by late October. But logistics companies say that is not happening this year.

“We’re concerned, because usually at this time, you see this peak,” said Richard D. Steinke, the executive director of the Port of Long Beach in California. “We haven’t seen it.”

In fact, the five busiest container ports in the United States said that imports in August 2011 were lower than or even with 2010 volumes.

In Long Beach, the second-busiest container port by volume, August imports fell by 14.2 percent from August 2010. While the port has not yet released September volumes, a spokesman, Art Wong, said it expected about a 15 percent drop from September 2010.

The reports from the remaining container ports in the top five were equally gloomy. In New York-New Jersey, the number of incoming containers in August was about flat with last year. In Savannah, Ga., imports in August fell by 4 percent. Oakland reported that August imports were down 0.9 percent from a year earlier. And Los Angeles, the nation’s highest-volume container port, counted 5.75 percent fewer containers in August than a year earlier.

“I expect over all the peak season will be muted,” said Kathryn McDermott, deputy executive director of business development for the Port of Los Angeles.

Last Thursday, the National Retail Federation said it expected holiday sales to rise 2.8 percent over last year. And late last month, the federation said it expected port volumes to rise by at least 4.5 percent a month for the final four months of the year.

At the same time, some analysts revised their holiday forecasts upward after the retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters beat estimates and reported an average 5.1 percent increase in same-store sales for September last Thursday.

“For the holidays,” Craig R. Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, wrote in a note to clients last week, “a 5 to 6 percent increase is clearly in reach.”

On Monday, a Citigroup retail analyst, Deborah Weinswig, revised her holiday forecast up by a percentage point, saying she expected 4 percent to 5 percent gains in same-store sales at department stores, up from 3 percent to 4 percent. There is traditionally a strong correlation between the back-to-school and holiday seasons, Ms. Weinswig said. Some retailers are raising their prices because raw-material costs have gone up, she wrote, which would help sales. And the “surprisingly resilient” back-to-school season, she wrote, had led to “our more upbeat outlook.”

While Mr. Steinke said that retailers occasionally delayed shipping for as long as possible to see how the economy progressed, he said they usually gave transportation companies a heads-up if they were planning a lot of last-minute orders. This year, he said, the retailers do not seem to be expecting that.

“We talk to the railroads, we talk to our ocean carriers, and they’re not seeing this big peak, or bracing themselves for a big late peak,” Mr. Steinke said.

It’s not just port traffic that is down. Spokesmen for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Federal Express said the same thing.

Unprecedented Drop in Port Traffic

The Wall Street Journal tells a similar story in At Ports, a Sobering Omen for Holiday Sales

Dick Steinke, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, says shipping volumes have posted two consecutive months of declines, and he’s anticipating a double-digit drop for September. The last time the port experienced no peak was during the height of the recession in 2009, he says. Before that, the phenomenon was unprecedented.

After a strong holiday season last year—with sales up 4.1%—forecasts are pointing to more moderate gains as the bumpy economic recovery, sustained high unemployment and higher living expenses keep consumers cautious with their gift spending. A recent survey of more than 3,500 consumers by market research firm NPD Group found that 27% of respondents plan to spend less this holiday season.

Stage Stores Inc. is leaner on inventory this year, says CEO Andy Hall. The department store chain has over 800 stores in the U.S. operating under the names Bealls, Goody’s, Peebles, Palais Royal and its namesake. Mr. Hall says his customers are affected by high unemployment and gas prices. “We can’t afford to be over-inventoried in our stores,” he says.

Rail companies are also noting a shift. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., which moves more containers between ships, rail and trucks than any other U.S. railroad, didn’t experience a traditional holiday peak in volumes this year, says John Lanigan, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. Some retail clients have outlined plans to stay lean and chase items closer to the holiday, he says. Depending on their timing, BNSF could be cut out of the equation if retailers have to the rush product deliveries by air, says Mr. Lanigan.

“We do not expect to see a traditional fall peak this year,” says Robin Chapman, a spokesman with Norfolk Southern Corp. In a September interview with The Wall Street Journal, Union Pacific Corp. CEO Jim Young said the rail company’s peak had moved from July until mid-September.

So what are analysts thinking? Or are they thinking at all?

Shippers don’t see it, the labor market does not see it, and consumer sentiment does not reflect more willingness to spend. Are analysts giddy over this 1-week rally in the stock market or are they simply cheerleading “rah rah sis-boom bah” as they do 99% of the time?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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