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What the ports tell us about the holiday shopping season

Cranes at Port of Long Beach
Cranes at Port of Long Beach
KPCC/Molly Peterson

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The holiday retail season is coming up. While it doesn’t feel much like Christmas yet, cargo ships loaded with future holiday gifts are already pulling into Southern California docks. How busy things get at the ports in the next few weeks will signal retailers' confidence in consumers' appetite to spend this December.

Santa has elves to help him move toys from the workshop to the sled. Retailers have longshoremen like Donovan Russell.

“We help make sure that the ships get unloaded quickly and safely and that people get their stuff whereever they are shopping,” Russell explains.

He's worked in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for a decade. He’s waiting with coworkers at the dispatch hall as a dispatcher reads the day's assignments over a crackling speaker.

Russell says when the economy’s strong, now is the busiest time of the year as stores stock up for the winter rush. But when the recession hit three years ago, things changed.

“It was tough," Russell says. "In the summers we were down to like 700, 800 jobs when normally there would be about 1,100."

A lot of longshoremen struggled to land enough work, Russell says. This year things are better. “It’s been good, it’s been good. It’s not the glory days, but you know everyone is being able to work and take care of their family and do the right thing, so it’s not too bad.”

The change started last year, when the import level began to bounce back. “It bounced back a lot,” says Art Wong, a spokesperson with the Port of Long Beach.

He says that after years of lagging imports, things rebounded almost to pre-recession levels last year. Wong says it would be nice to chalk that up to a robust economy. But he thinks that's not the only reason for the uptick in shipping.

“I think there was a concerted decision among the retailers to put things back in the stores because people wouldn’t return if the stores were empty," Wong says. "So there was this big rush to fill the stores with things, to try and entice the people back into the stores, and it worked.”

Holiday sales improved last year and economists predicted then that things were on the mend. This year there hasn’t been another big increase, but the economy hasn't taken a nosedive, either.

“I would expect to see an almost identical pattern this year as last," says Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with the NPD Group. "We are kind of heading into a rerun of the same movie.”

He says the year since then has given the economy plenty of reasons to crawl back into a recession — the Standard and Poor's rating downgrade, the federal debt-ceiling debate, Hurricane Irene — but so far it hasn’t.

“The amazing thing is the consumer keeps rebounding from all these issues," Cohen says. "So the momentum is holding on in a slow growth pattern.”

Sure enough, retail sales climbed a little last month. NPD’s Marshall Cohen says the outlook for the holidays is bright — barring major, unforeseen economic disasters.

That’s good news for longshoremen like Donovan Russell “We’ve got families and we want to buy Christmas presents too,” Russell says.

He knows strong consumer confidence now will likely mean more work for him and the union in the months ahead. But if it doesn’t pan out, Russell says he’ll be ready.

“I’ll be okay. I’ve planned it. I am saving more than I was," Russell says. "I am not buying things I don’t need and trips I don’t need. I’ve learned to cut my purse strings off, so that helps.”

Like most Americans, he’d love to spend. But if the rest of country keeps their collective wallets in their collective pockets, he will too.