SIW1100Last Friday saw US retail’s biggest day of the year. “Black Friday” offers tempted shoppers into parting with $57.4bn in the US, followed by more online spending on “Cyber Monday”. That’s a lot of retail activity and the phenomenon is becoming more global. Much of the stock sold is shipped from its location of manufacture by container, so does this help shipping?

Bad Days

Retail spikes like this aren’t a totally new phenomenon, and in any case they haven’t been much help in recent years. Since the onset of the economic downturn, the two key ‘mainlane’ container trades have performed relatively weakly as consumers in the west have remained under pressure. The graph shows monthly year-on-year growth in eastbound Asia-US and westbound Asia-Europe box volumes, reflecting the strength of demand for Asian-made manufactures from consumers in the developed world. Late 2008 and most of 2009 saw a severe downturn in volumes, with retailers destocking rapidly, and most of the time since mid-2011 growth has remained in the doldrums along with the developed economies. Positive growth in 2010 was only really a reflection of how bad 2009 was and overall volumes have seen little growth. Asia-Europe volumes in 2012 were still down 2% on 2008, and Asia-US volumes 1% lower.

Better Days?

However, things might be on the turn. Data on the impact of the last week’s retail trade on box volumes isn’t available yet (and as it happens the US spend on Black Friday itself has initially been reported to be a little down on last year), but recent mainlane volume data has shown a welcome return to positive growth. In June y-o-y growth returned to firmly positive territory on the Asia-Europe lane and followed suit on the Transpacific in July. Across June-October, Asia-Europe trade has been up 8% y-o-y and Asia-US trade up 4%. Having bemoaned the lack of a ‘peak season’ in recent years, carriers may at last this year have seen a surge in volumes during the period in which retailers conventionally stock up ready for the pre-holiday shopping season.

Big World Today

How much help is this? Once upon a time the health of the sector depended on growth on the mainlane trades. These days, due to expansion in the developing economies, and on the north-south and intra-Asia trades, the mainlanes aren’t always the key growth drivers. Volume growth there is only expected to constitute a 23% share of global growth in 2013 (with 39% intra-Asia). However, healthier mainlane trade still certainly helps top up demand growth.

Day to Day

So container transportation connects the world’s producers and consumers, but it’s a big world out there now and retail activity in the developed world isn’t enough to carry containership demand on its own. However, with growth coming back on the mainlanes, further helpful Fridays, Mondays or any other days will be better news for container shipping.