International Shipping Rates Challenge: New Year, Same Capacity Challenges

In the international shipping marketplace, that translates to equipment availability issues, ongoing capacity pressure and motivation for the major shipping alliances to maintain record-high rates.

Although the Chinese New Year February 11-26 offers promise of a breather for vessel, port and intermodal operations, events of 2020 created enough congestion and imbalance that volatility will continue to affect supply chains reliant on international transportation.

Let’s explore factors that will affect price, capacity and service in the first half of 2021 and continue to contribute to international shipping rates challenges.

No International Shipping Relief in Sight

Signs of a unique year are already emerging. Freight capacity demands are at levels unlike we’ve ever experienced for this season. Bookings are at capacity through January and into February.

As a result, international shipping rates are not going down any time soon. Since the 3 major shipping alliances control about 85 percent of international shipping capacity, operators leverage their power more than in the past. A General Rate Increase has not been announced since September, but we are not seeing the typical drop in costs that normally accompanies a loosening of capacity that follows peak season. That will keep rates elevated.

Additional loaders are being deployed to keep up with demand. Some of those come online to send empty containers back to Asia. There, ports wait for a hundreds of thousands of containers to move slowly back into the flow from the congested U.S. West Coast.

Optimism is high that the Chinese New Year will afford two weeks of breathing room for the international shipping industry to catch up. Unfortunately, 16 days will not likely be enough time to alleviate several months’ worth of challenges that continue to affect services and cost across your end-to-end network.

Ripples Across Transportation Spend Clogs International and Domestic Supply Chain

The ripple of demand, capacity and equipment availability is felt across all transportation modes. Congestion on the rail stalls movement of freight. Full inbound containers detained by the rail are being stored off-site, requiring additional moves. When there is disruption to intermodal, expect it to occur across truckload and LTL and pressure cost management and service times as a result.

In this environment, global distribution of COVID-19 vaccine creates additional demand spikes, especially for the Air Freight mode that will fill a key role in the transportation of temperature sensitive materials. Likewise, expect to see impact across other domestic modes as medical supplies are prioritized, and, in the process, pushing transportation pricing up and capacity down.

On the trade compliance front, a new administration in Washington, D.C., has promised to bring regulation changes that will likely develop more slowly. Efforts to rollback tariffs, like China 301, get a lot of attention, and while the policy changes of a new president may not move quickly, expect some ripple in the complex rules for importing and exporting goods into the United States.

Consumer Behaviors Drive “Forever Peak” with Overseas Shipping

Problems challenging the international supply chain emanate from ongoing shifts in consumer behavior. E-commerce continues to fill buying voids left open by vacations and visits to the mall. Disposable income drives the online purchase of goods and the volume of consumable goods moving through transportation networks is creating an extended peak season across all modes.

Buyers are quickly becoming accustomed to the immediate purchase satisfaction that comes from an online order, and that is not ever going to revert. Raw material, component and finished good sourcing strategies as well as inventory management practices become increasingly complicated when buyers know they can take their cart elsewhere if you do not have the desired quantity available to fill their online order.

To make sure you protect that experience and secure every sale, it is critical to understand how every piece of the end-to-end supply chain puzzle – from foreign production site and overseas shipping, to trade compliance, domestic transportation and last mile delivery – fits together into a total landed cost of goods.

An expert partner can help you assemble the big picture perspective so you can control your international and domestic spend and turn your focus toward achieving strategic goals for your business.

For more insight on multi-modal transportation trends that will affect your cost and service in 2021, download our Q1 Industry Forecast. It features a look at things to come for shippers relying on Truckload, LTL and Parcel transportation, as well as our international transportation forecasts.

E-Commerce Logistics Demands, COVID-19 Empower Ocean Alliances

Although there is still a slim chance that the fourth quarter produces some rate compression – or a downturn in the need for e-commerce logistics. When freight levels are at an all-time high, there is little motivation for the three major shipping alliances to drop rates significantly during the remaining calendar year.

Shippers looking to 2021 would be wise to consider contingency budgeting – especially if you are a major importer competing in a supply chain environment that continues to be affected by ongoing growth in online sales and e-commerce logistics.

Likewise, there has never been a more important time to reassess your entire import supply chain to validate compliance with evolving trade regulations. Emerging pinch points in the international supply chain are elevating risk for shippers who must be prepared to address traditional risk areas that carry a financial impact.

As we have stated since early 2019, contingency planning must be the part of your monthly and sometimes weekly business plans. Diversification in foreign sourcing has never been more critical, particularly in an election season that has pushed global trade forward as individual candidates differentiating issue.  

Close review of the international transportation landscape can lay the groundwork for developing strategies that mitigate that risk heading into 2021.

Alliances Take Control Amid E-Commerce Boom

Consumer behaviors are shifting the traditional retail models, and the unchecked growth of e-commerce is keeping the global supply chain packed with product. 

Credit some of that international freight volume to the rapid production and movement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in response to a global health crisis. At the same time, retail supply chains have been irreversibly impacted by the functional success of e-commerce. Until some of the demand cycles in both realms stabilize, predicting ocean shipping rates will be a challenge.

More importantly, the three major shipping alliances response to COVID-19 demands the attention of organizations that rely on global commerce and e-commerce logistics. Vessel operators have shown remarkable discipline by matching supply to demand volatility.

During the first half of the year, the three alliances (2M, Ocean Alliance and THE Alliance) constricted supply by canceling dozens of scheduled voyages with the intent to remove excess capacity. However the net effect was scarcity of space, i.e. rates were increased monthly or bi-weekly and started to build. Representing 21 ocean vessel operators and roughly 10 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), these alliances have maintained rate discipline as the retail supply chain began to open in July in August. 

In the past, increased demand for service and the prospect of rate increase motivated operators to add sailings. With a strategic approach that ensures vessels are filled before others are added, ocean carriers keep upward pressure on rates that are roughly 80 percent higher in a year-over-year comparison to 2019.

This strategy supports a more dependable service for international shippers as it creates more reliability for in-country logistics operators, but if the alliances maintain this discipline, plan for rates to stay elevated. Solid bookings will continue through October and contingency budgeting should be a focus for major importers.

Persisting Pinch Points Create Risk

As we approach what has traditionally been a calm period at the end of the e-commerce logistics peak season, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are at capacity. Historically higher volume for this time of year will undoubtedly spur downstream challenges deep into Q4 and into 2021. 

Finding available chasses to support container movements will continue to be a problem into December. As these containers and chasses (to a lesser degree) move in country and on the rail, it is hard to balance the need for equipment during a disruption-filled year like we’ve had. Vessels hoping to expedite movement for the last wave of peak season freight to North America are now waiting for containers to come back to port so that have something to load and ship. 

We know there will be an end to this kind of imbalance, but we have not gotten there yet.

The timing has never been greater for organizations to assess their entire import and export supply chain. Look for places to increase efficiency. Identify pinch points that elevate risk that emerges in times of global volatility. At this point, organizations should have complete awareness of the supply chain challenges arising during COVID-19 and address their preparedness for the next global disruption, both economically and around traditional risk areas. 

Trade Regulations and Tariff Battles Require Eye on Compliance

Plaintiffs representing a diverse set of industries are suing the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) for relief from China 301 tariffs. The argument: tariffs implemented without sufficient advanced notice caused unfair and improper financial harm to their organizations. Many shippers have been negatively impacted, some to a crippling point, and they are looking for any dollars they can get.

These organizations – including some of the world’s largest brands – will not likely get complete relief, but their actions demonstrate that businesses will not sit idle when trade laws are put in place, as they argue, without warning.

Meanwhile, implementation of the trade regulations intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement continues to carry some unexpected consequences.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is having the largest effect on businesses close to the automotive supply chain, but many companies were lulled into thinking there would be limited changes in the new agreement. Updated documentation is required to execute cross border entries. Make sure to review your international trade compliance processes to avoid this type of needless risk caused by what seems like a simple change in regulations. 

Post-Pandemic Tactics for E-Commerce Logistics Advantage

Before COVID-19, businesses looking to build an e-commerce presence were hamstrung by the lack of speed in developing their current labor pool with the skills required for e-commerce, as well as fulfillment automation capability. Others dabbled in a web storefront strategy. These companies typically lacked the sophisticated technology, generally a good Warehouse Management System (WMS), needed to pick multiple orders to a cart and then have them quickly and accurately auto-sorted through a RF or mobile device. The result was unsustainable inefficiencies. We saw that e-fulfillment costs in some cases exceeded 25 percent of sales.

In the meantime, Amazon.com, which controlled about half of all U.S. e-commerce going into the crisis, kicked into high gear during it. At one point during the crisis Amazon customers spent as much as $11,000 a second on its products and services. By contrast, nearly 1 million traditional retail workers were furloughed in one week, and more than 250,000 stores had shut down. Many stores may never reopen, or may look very different going forward. The same goes for fulfillment centers. Many have and will continue to be physically modified to ensure worker safety. The flow of operations may need to be modified as well.

For many e-tailers, the “new normal” of e-commerce will be challenging and may seem insurmountable, but getting to the other side is doable. 

E-Commerce Logistics Strategy for the New Normal

Understand what current state looks like in the new normal − starting with your cost per-order. 

Are your costs segmented by freight, management and supervision, labor, facilities and shipping supplies?

Then understand what and how these costs can be managed, optimized and reduced. Typically, freight costs exceed the sum of the other components. Reducing freight dollars spent per revenue dollars created should be an immediate focus. 

The questions to ask from this point are critical to the next step. 

  • Is your network aligned to best serve the customer? 
  • Are your shipping lanes optimized? 
  • Are you using the best shipping partners to meet your strategic goals? 

Stay on top of your rates. Evaluate them frequently, and renegotiate them when appropriate. 

This is where collaborating with a seasoned logistics expert adds enormous value to you e-commerce platform. Our long and deep relationships with carriers, our data analytics and information mining expertise and our proprietary audit technology platform give you end-to-end visibility to answer those key questions.

Align Your Operations and Your Network

Once your network is optimized, it is time to consider how your operations play into that. What questions can quickly be addressed?

By asking these questions and making some quick, deployable solutions, you can improve your profitability profile in short order.  

Benchmark your service-level performance with best-in-class metrics. How does your fulfillment center operation compare with leaders in the field? 

Focus strongly on the efficiency of your picking and packing operations, which can account for more than half the cost of your order outside of outbound shipping. A thorough analysis of your fulfillment center process will yield changes to improve operations and reduce costs.

Apply technologies where it makes financial sense and where it fits your growth plans. Many legacy WMS applications were designed to manage fulfillment orders in pre-determined waves. They were not optimized to manage the unpredictable flows of e-commerce traffic. Today’s technology is built to allow orders to be picked for store and e-commerce simultaneously. This enables businesses to leverage inventory buys to achieve economies of scale.

Also, consider a multi-fulfillment center strategy, including BOPIS strategies. These can expedite orders to consumers quicker and reduce shipping costs. Facilities expansion can carry with it significant operating expense. An expert partner with a robust portfolio of data, expertise and carrier relationships can support your decision-making on this critical issue. 

Improvement Focus Drives Customer Experience

Above all, be consistent with ongoing process improvements. Don’t consider e-commerce logistics just a project, it is a process that has to be constantly improving. Companies that dedicate full-time employees to process improvements are those that make the biggest strides. 

Analyze your facility space requirements, and how labor is being utilized. Be open to suggestions on how to improve productivity and boost customer satisfaction. Make it a part of your corporate culture.

According to a recent study, millennial consumers who account for about $1.2 trillion in U.S. retail sales say they value the “experience” that accompanies an online order as much as the product itself. The “Generation Z” group coming up behind the Millennials shares those sentiments. 

At the core of that experience is fast, timely delivery supported by in-transit visibility across multiple digital platforms. Succeed in executing on that final step, and you will achieve favorable word of mouth that can help build a brand. Fail, and that brand may not get a second bite.

Those attitudes were in place well before Covid-19. And they are unlikely to diminish. It is both an enormous opportunity, and daunting challenge. Is your e-commerce strategy ready?

Master Logistics, Power Competitive Advantage

You invest a lot of money in your logistics network. But are you maximizing its value? Do you feel like your logistics operation is more of a cost center than a tool of competitive advantage?

It doesn’t have to be. In fact, with the right strategy and execution, logistics can drive the success of your enterprise. Companies like Amazon, Walmart, Target and Dell made logistics a priority, with spectacular results. There is no reason you can’t do the same!

To master your logistics strategy, read “Moving to the Front of the Line: Making Logistics a Competitive Advantage.”

Use Logistics to Compress Cash-to-Cash Cycles

Logistics is the lifeblood of any organization. It connects suppliers, manufacturers, intermediaries, carriers and end customers with actionable data based on historical transaction patterns. Yet too often corporate leaders view logistics as a cost center instead of a competitive advantage. We find the best way to overcome that perception is to connect the dots between our deep skill set and the positive financial outcomes we can deliver for our clients.

When Transportation Insight talks about logistics as a competitive advantage, we refer to the speed to serve as much as the cost to serve. Time is money.  Companies implementing strong logistics strategies typically turn their inventory faster. They need to rely less on safety stock throughout every level of the supply chain, which is itself a cash burn. They keep goods in motion so they reach consumption points faster, and turn capital quicker.

Reduce Cash-to-Cash Cycle, Free Up Operating Capital

For definition, cash-to-cash cycle time examines the number of days of working capital an organization has tied up in managing its supply chain. The faster the cash-to-cash cycle, the fewer days an organization’s cash is unavailable for other investment. According to American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) research, the top performers have 60-day cycle times. The bottom performers clock in at about 120 days+.

Reducing cash-to-cash cycle time involves eliminating factors (such as inventory) that tie up operating capital. Effective organizations optimize inventory to free up capital while maintaining enough stock to satisfy customer orders. This can be accomplished through a well-designed demand forecasting, comprehensive company-wide inventory optimization strategy, supported by logistics that aligns roles and responsibilities in the supply chain, and identifies processes that can be streamlined.

Streamlining order-to-cash processes can also reduce cash-to-cash cycle time because faster invoice processing and receipt of customer payment decreases the amount of time that an organization’s capital is unavailable.

Make no mistake, there are some logistics people who love inventory because it covers some of the “stumps in the water,” as we like to say. But safety stock exists because businesses struggle to match their inventory needs with final demand. Safety stock is also an impediment to optimal cash flows.

But in a lean world, there is no such thing as “safety stock.” Everything turns in its own time, and on its own velocity. Thus, it is critical to identify and root out supply chain inefficiencies at the front end. Are you optimizing inbound shipping lanes, whether domestic or international? Does your inventory strategy balance your costs with meeting customer delivery expectations? Do you have the technology and expertise to effectively manage your product velocity and shrink the cash cycle?

Companies have multiple customer channels. You may have a traditional B2B channel, an e-commerce channel, or a hybrid. Each channel may have its own dedicated inventory. They also have their own cash-to-cash cycles. They are certainly going to have their own logistical challenges. A capable logistics partner like Transportation Insight can support the unique needs of each channel to achieve the most financially desirable outcomes.

Mastering Logistics to Meet Consumer Demand

There are companies that have succeeded in re-inventing the wheel. Then there are others that prospered by improving on legacy processes. Walmart wasn’t better than any other retailer. It offered the same brand of toothpaste and laundry detergent as others did. Sam Walton’s genius lied in focusing on logistics to get goods to the shelves, and in customer’s hands, faster and cheaper than anyone else.

By putting the right product, in the right place and price, when and where the consumer wanted, Walmart accelerated cash returns for manufacturers and for itself. It also turned out to be a lethal combination-for other retailers.

Mastering the competing dynamics of transportation and inventory requirements can be a complex undertaking. You need to weigh the importance of improved working capital with ensuring that goods are always available when and where your customers need them. This is our forte.

Each day, we bring our data platforms, deep understanding of carrier networks, rate negotiating and auditing expertise, and decades of accumulated industry experience to bear to solve these problems. We are quite candid with customer feedback, and what we hear most from our clients is that we take challenges like these off their hands, provide them with rich analysis, and enable effective decision-making.

For more information, read “Move to the Front” today.

From NAFTA to USMCA: All Trade Agreements Are Not Created Equal

Furthermore, many companies focused on overcoming operational challenges of the pandemic have been able to delay response to a regulatory action that’s been outside the spotlight.

Until now.

On July 1, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) replaces the existing requirements of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with an exception for certain automotive products that will have a three-year transitional period. Many elements of NAFTA were retained in the new agreement; however, there are distinctions in the USMCA that require review and consideration by trade participants to ensure they effectively manage compliance during this program transition. According to a recent survey, there appears to be some confusion among supply chain managers on how to implement these changes and mitigate non-compliance risk to maintain company profitability.

Importers’ goods that qualified under NAFTA may also be eligible for USMCA; however, there are subtle changes that may impact those determinations. USMCA due diligence should be conducted by all trade participants as a demonstration of compliance, for all companies participating in North American trade between the United States, Mexico and/or Canada.

5 Differences Between NAFTA and USMCA

  1. Importers will no longer be required to complete a formal NAFTA certification document. A certificate of origin may now be completed based on information provided by the producer. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not mandating a standard format for certificates of origin as long as they contain all of the required data elements. A best practice is to have the certification in hand before making a claim. Previous NAFTA certificates and certification documentation under USMCA must be kept for a minimum of five years.
  2. The de minimis threshold increases. NAFTA’s threshold of 7 percent for FOB value increases under USMCA to 10 percent. The de minimis for textiles and apparel is different.
  3. The terms of the USMCA will remain in effect for 16 years, after which time the parties can choose to revisit and/or renegotiate those terms, or withdraw from the agreement altogether. The agreement is also subject to a review every six years, at which point the United States, Mexico, and Canada can decide whether or not to extend the agreement if they feel doing so would be beneficial.
  4. Merchandise Process Fee (MPF) refunds will not be made on post-importation claims. An importer who fails to claim preferential tariff treatment at the time of entry will not be able to recoup their MPF through a post-summary correction or reconciliation later.
  5. Changes were made to the Rule of Origin for various goods (e.g., manufactured goods, pharmaceuticals, healthcare products, textiles and apparel, agricultural goods, etc.). However there are significant changes within the automotive sector concerning eligibility based on regional value content. In general, USMCA now requires the total North American-based content of a vehicle to equal 75 percent (up from 62.5 percent). USMCA also requires that 70 percent of a vehicle’s steel and aluminum must originate in North America.

How should importers prepare for the USMCA transition to ensure compliance?

Importers should carefully review their imported goods to ensure they understand the new rules of origin and can verify that they qualify under the new agreement. Binding rulings that determine parameters of origin determination under NAFTA will be invalid, and a new binding ruling will be required for USMCA.

We also recommend performing a comprehensive review of imported goods through internal or external compliance means to demonstrate USMCA Compliance due diligence. For example, there may be cases where goods did not qualify under the terms of NAFTA but may now qualify under USMCA.

And above all else, it is imperative that importers maintain a proper record-keeping system. This means you must document where all of your goods originate, and you must have on file a detailed description of your sourcing, production and determination process that clearly defines that the goods qualify.

Our Experience is Your Compass

It is a grave error for importers to assume their goods qualify under USMCA, even if they were NAFTA eligible.

To help guide you through the necessary process to determine whether or not your products do meet USMCA rules, Transportation Insight’s team of international compliance consultants are ready to help you outline and execute a personalized scope of work plan to ensure your USMCA program is in full compliance.

While your focus today on maximum supply chain efficiency can improve your ability to meet arising market demands, a partner with expertise in international trade compliance brings you peace of mind – and so much more. We take over the work of helping you navigate through the change from NAFTA to USMCA so you can progress toward global supply chain mastery.

Make sure your trade compliance processes are updated to protect your business financial risk that emerges during the implementation of complex new regulations. Contact one of our global trade compliance experts today for a free consultation.