Transportation Costs in 2021: Less-Than-Truckload

Carriers are reacting to market changes in other ways beyond transportation costs, as well. One example: early in 2020, one national carrier indicated it would match any volume LTL quote from another carrier. Six weeks later, that carrier wasn’t accepting any volume shipments due to the dramatic shift in the market.

Carriers also have grown more comfortable implementing LTL surcharges that further drive up transportation costs. Some are turning away freight that is more difficult to handle.

The LTL transactional market is seeing tight capacity and generally widespread delays, including with premium carriers. Driving this is a 10-12 percent growth in demand, several times the typical range. 

Capacity constraints in the LTL markets may seem out of step with some of the economic news, which continues to reflect the pandemic toll on many businesses. The September 2020 unemployment rate (7.9 percent) was more than double the rate a year earlier. And while the gross domestic product jumped by $1.64 trillion in the third quarter of 2020, that followed a drop of $2.04 trillion in the second quarter.

One reason for the disconnect is the drop in the consumption of services, which dwarfs the drop in the consumption of goods. Between the first and second quarters, consumption of services dropped 13.3 percent, according to the American Trucking Association. The consumption of goods dropped by a more modest 2.8 percent, also according to the ATA. 

Looking at LTL Transportation in 2021

Even as the economy slowly recovers, demand for goods likely will outpace demand for services, the ATA predicts. Until a vaccine has been broadly distributed and COVID cases drop drastically, consumers appear comfortable continuing to spend more time at home. As they do, newly formed online shopping habits probably will continue. Online purchases of furniture and appliances, apparel, and groceries, among other items, are likely to remain at least 10 percent higher post-pandemic, consulting firm McKinsey found. 

This shift is contributing to expected ongoing capacity tightness. In turn, that likely will contribute to a favorable carrier’s market next year. The rate increases some carriers are imposing in high-capacity lanes likely will continue into 2021, until capacity corrects itself.

The level of those rate increase can vary. LTL carriers develop market-specific rate bases so the impact of increases passed along in 2021 can be influenced by carriers’ operating needs and your shipping characteristics. 

Carrier mergers also appear poised to continue. Most take one of several approaches. Some companies join forces to pool resources and become more efficient. Others bring together companies in different sectors, allowing all to expand their range of services.

Shippers of bulky, low-density, non-dock-to-dock freight, along with shippers of over-dimensional freight that parcel carriers are trying to price out of the parcel network, may face additional obstacles. Some LTL carriers are trying to push these freight types to the truckload market and are raising rates accordingly. 

Surcharges appear likely to remain and even increase. If some states, as predicted, add taxes, other LTL surcharges may appear. 

Prior to the pandemic, some LTL carriers began investing in box trucks so they could more easily handle residential e-commerce deliveries. These efforts have slowed during the pandemic and capacity crunch. However, once demand and capacity rebalance, expect to see LTL carriers make another move into this market. 

Managing Transportation Costs Through Capacity Constraints

While shifting from one carrier to another might seem like a way to improve service and transportation cost, jumping may not help. In fact, it’s possible service will further decline. 

Several other steps tend to be more effective. One is to take a longer-term perspective, work with a carrier, and establish a partnership that benefits all involved. Another is to build lead time into processes and set realistic expectations with end customers. 

For more insight on the motor freight environment we expect to emerge in 2021, watch our webinar focused on Brokerage and Capacity Planning 2021. We take a deeper dive into the outlook for LTL, Truckload and International transportation in our Freight Rate Outlook 2021. Read it today for multi-modal rate forecasts and analysis from our Supply Chain Masters.

How will NMFC Classification Changes Affect Your Cost?

The NMFC classes, according to the National Motor Freight Traffic Association, are a way of grouping different commodities that move in interstate, intrastate, and foreign commerce. The commodities are grouped into one of 18 classes, ranging from class 50 to class 500, based on four characteristics that determine how easily different commodities can be transported, or their “transportability.” Generally, products with a lower the class are denser and easier to ship. That translates to a lower freight rate. 

Each quarter, the National Motor Freight Transportation Association, which is made up of motor carriers, considers updates to the NMFC. The proposed changes then are voted on by the members of the Commodity Classification Standards Boards. The CCSB is made up of employees of the National Motor Freight Traffic Association. 

It is important to understand how the latest round of changes affect your freight. Doing so allows you to make adjustments and leverage these changes to your benefit to improve your transportation cost control.

NMFC Classifications

NMFC classifies commodities for transportation based on four characteristics: stowability, liability, handling and density.

Stowability: This considers how easily items will fit and/or can be transported with other items on a truck. For instance, hazardous materials generally cannot be transported with non-hazardous materials, making them less “stowable.” The same tends to hold true for items of unusual or oversized shapes. The lower the stowability of an item, generally, the higher its class and cost to ship.

Liability: This covers the likelihood a product may be stolen or damaged, or damage the freight around it while in transit. It also takes into account whether a product is perishable. The more a product faces these risks, generally, the greater the liability to the carrier, and the higher its class and cost.

Ease of HandlingThis covers multiple characteristics that affect how easily products can be loaded or unloaded, including their size, weight and fragility.

Density: As you might guess, this is calculated by measuring an item’s weight and dimensions. The higher the density, the lower the NMFC class and thus, the cost. While this may initially seem counter-intuitive, the calculation recognizes that denser items take up less room than less-dense items, when compared to their weight. That leaves more room on the truck for other shipments.

Updates to the NMFC

In general, the changes this quarter take the density of shipments into account to a greater degree than they previously did. For instance, gloves and mittens, along with sealing and masking tape, are shifting from a single class to a density-based classification. This is similar to other NMFC classification changes that have occurred recently. 

This quarter, the changes cover about 20 NMFC Groups:  

  • Automobile parts
  • Building materials, miscellaneous
  • Building metalworks
  • Building woodwork
  • Chemicals
  • Clothing
  • Drawing instruments, optical goods, or scientific instruments
  • Electrical equipment
  • Furniture
  • Games or toys
  • Hardware
  • Iron or Steel
  • Machinery
  • Paper articles
  • Plastic or rubber articles, other than expanded
  • Tools or parts named
  • Bases, flagpole or sign, concrete, with or without metal attachments
  • Compounds, industrial process water treating, o/t toxic or corrosive materials
  • Forms, concrete retaining, sign or lamp post base, taper-sided, sheet steel 

In addition to these changes, a rule change under Item 110 clarifies that “coin- or currency-operated” refers to items that accept debit or credit cards, or other forms of payment, as well as cash payments. 

Working with Transportation Insight to Stay Abreast of Changes 

When your product ships, you will want to make sure the correct NMFC code is visible on the bill of lading, so the carrier knows to use it. It also helps to describe the product being shipped to the extent possible. 

Every year hundreds of shippers master their supply chain leveraging Transportation Insight’s ability to monitor the industry trends that affect transportation costs. To ensure our clients are using updated codes, Transportation Insight proactively checks all products against the NMFC database to help you manage the changes and control your spend. Our freight bill audit and payment solution provides an additional layer of support that ensures alignment between your billing and invoiced classification.

Do you have questions about how the fourth quarter NMFC classification changes affect your products? Contact a member of our team for a consultation.

For more analysis on freight capacity planning strategy, watch our Capacity Masters Roundtable. It offers guidance from our truckload, LTL and brokerage experts that will help you understand – and control! – cost drivers in the year ahead.