What's not in store: Merchants hold back imports

Latest industry report shows sharp drop in volume of shipments of retail goods, with weakness expected to flow through summer.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

This summer, I plan to
  • Take a vacation
  • Cut back on my summer travel
  • Get used to "staycations"

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A significant drop in volume of imported retail goods into the United States is providing fresh evidence that a slowing economy has pinched American consumers' ability to shop freely, according to an industry report Wednesday.

In-bound container traffic to the U.S. was down 4.8% in March from February, which traditionally is the slowest month of the year for retail-related imports, according to the latest joint monthly Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and forecasting firm Global Insight.

That figure represented the lowest monthly volume since February 2006.

What's more, the NRF forecasts that growth in-bound container traffic will remain at or below last year's levels through the summer months "due to the underlying weakness in consumer demand in the U.S. economy," said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy with the NRF.

Looking forward at year-over-year figures, Port Tracker estimates a 3.2% dip in April, a 4.8% fall in May, a 7% drop in June, and a 2% decline in July. In September, in-bound container traffic is finally seen rising by 3%.

"Retailers are watching consumers' shopping patterns very carefully this year, and the volume of imports reflects what merchants expect they can sell in their stores," Gold said. "These numbers show a cautious approach to inventory management for this fall."

This means that merchants are planning to be extra cautious with their inventory over the summer and potentially over the critical fourth-quarter period as well which includes the crucial November-December holiday shopping months.

"After last year's difficult holiday season, retailers want to make sure that they aren't stuck with leftover inventory going into 2009, " said Craig Shearman, NRF's vice president for government affairs.

But he added that the trade group currently doesn't anticipate that holiday shoppers will face product shortages because of tighter supplies. To top of page

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