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Strong growth follows pessimistic forecast from retailers on shipping demand in first half of 2016

By Erica E. Phillips
March 9, 2016, 6:23 p.m. ET

The nation’s second-largest port reported a record February for container volume, despite retailer expectations that imports in the first half of 2016 would slow.

The Port of Long Beach, Calif. handled 295,870 loaded 20-foot equivalent units, a standard measure for container cargo, on the import side. That was a February record for the port, and a 45% increase over February of 2015, when protracted labor contract negotiations, among other issues, led to weeks of severe congestion and low container volumes at ports up and down the West Coast.

Compared with February 2014, before the congestion became a problem, imports at the Port of Long Beach were up 9%. Port officials attributed the growth to the strong U.S. dollar driving demand for imports, which are relatively cheaper.

The strong dollar has also driven recent growth in empty export containers and ongoing declines in loaded export containers, as weak foreign economies have less demand for U.S. products but foreign suppliers need the empty containers to pack back up with goods destined for the U.S.

Although empty containers were up 45% year over year in Long Beach, monthly empties have been steadily declining over the past 12 months. The port handled 142,532 empty TEUs in February—the lowest monthly volume in a year.

Loaded export containers reached 123,010 TEUs at Long Beach in February, up 11% from the same month last year—when the port was backed up—but down 14% from February of 2014.

Long Beach was the first major U.S. port to report monthly container volumes for February. In late February, Long Beach welcomed the largest container ship to ever reach U.S. shores, CMA CGM SA’s Benjamin Franklin.

The National Retail Federation estimates that import volumes will decline slightly at major U.S. ports in March before growing again in the summer as back-to-school shipments kick off the traditional peak season for shipping to the U.S. According to the NRF’s monthly Global Port Tracker report, the nation’s major ports handled approximately 1.4 million import TEUs in February overall.