But ATA’s chief economist said freight volumes generally decelerated during the late months of 2015 and that the trend carried over in January. “Clearly, 2016 started soft for truck tonnage,” the ATA’s Bob Costello said in a statement. “The inventory situation continues to weigh on truck freight volumes.”
Several large retailers have said they are trying to restrain inventory expansion after overstocking in the middle of last year. The U.S. Census Bureau reported a steady growth in the ratio of inventories to sales among retailers and manufacturers in 2015. The measure reached its highest level since early 2009 in December, at 1.38 for manufacturers and 1.49 for retailers.
“January was very slow but February has picked up,” said Harold Friedman, senior vice president of global corporate development at Data2Logistics, which processes freight payments for retailers and manufacturers. “The warmer weather has had an impact, I think. People weren’t buying winter clothes and they weren’t going skiing, and that has a ripple effect on the economy.”
Mr. Friedman said the muted shipping so far this year is a continuation of lackluster business late in 2015.
“We expected to see more volume by the end of the year than we did. It’s not that we lost customers, but that business with many customers was just slower than we had anticipated,” he said.
Earnings results this week gave glimmers of hope, as some retailers reported stronger-than-expected results for the fourth quarter.
Home Depot Inc.’s sales rose in the fourth quarter as big-ticket items held strong.
And Macy’s Inc. said January sales improved, and inventories were up only 1.6%—less than some analysts’ expectations.