Transportation rates forecast for Q3 2021

Transportation Rates Forecast: Q3 2021

Transportation rates forecast for Q3 of 2021

With capacity constraints at the beginning of the year, on the heels of pandemic, transportation rates challenges from the first half of 2021 should continue into the second half.

  • Capacity demands drive up rates across full truckload’s spot and contract markets.
  • Costs increase in less-than-truckload lanes, even while service declines.
  • Small parcel carriers look ahead to another holiday peak, even though consumers’ e-commerce appetite has gobbled up capacity since the last peak.
  • International shipping still bears the weight of global pandemic, exacerbating global supply chain disruption.
  • And fuel prices are driving up costs everywhere.

Serving your customers in this environment depends on your consistent visibility to transportation activities and costs. Moving freight requires strong logistics carrier management practices, including solid partnerships with reliable providers, contingency plans – and patience. Controlling costs relies on ongoing analysis of strategy, compliance and performance, as well as agile course correction supported by experts.

Read on to understand the Q3 transportation rates trends that will affect your transportation management and get advice to help protect your performance.

Economic Conditions: Diesel Fuel Prices Increasing

U.S. diesel fuel prices have climbed 38.5% from a low in November. That is affecting transportation costs. Parcel carriers are escalating fuel surcharges, and fuel costs will be an increasing factor for over-the-road freight, especially during the traditional summer travel and shipping season.

U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Diesel Fuel Prices through June 21, 2021
U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Diesel Fuel Prices through June 21, 2021

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast shows that the average diesel retail price per gallon is $3.29 as of June 21, the highest average since May 28, 2018. Diesel fuel prices averaged $2.55/gal in 2020. EIA’s updated 2021 forecast is an average $3.07/gal., an increase of 13 cents since Q2 estimates. 

Economic Conditions: How Do Transportation Rates Affect Revenue for Goods Produced?

The Producer Price Index (PPI) measures cost trends for everything manufactured in the U.S. This custom performance index reflects the rate of PPI change compared to the rate of change in transportation costs.   

Transportation costs compared to producer prices reflects sharp gains in the price of moving freight.

Performance indices for Parcel, LTL and Truckload increased year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter as capacity constraints persist across all modes. Of note, the Truckload index increased 28.5% YOY and 12.8% since January 2021. LTL increased 9.1% compared to 2020, and 4.1% compared to January 2021. Parcel continues climb as well, rising 7.8% YOY. 

Economic Conditions: E-Commerce Sales Climb Continuing

First quarter 2021 e-commerce sales reached $215 billion, a 7.7% increase over Q4 2020. Year-over-year, the Q1 2021 e-commerce estimate increased 39.1%. While consumers’ return to physical stores may affect some e-commerce activity, analysts expect strong sales to continue.  

: E-commerce Sales as a Percentage of Total Retail Sales 2017-2025
Source: eMarketer

One survey of more than 1,000 consumers in late March and early April by consulting firm AlixPartners LLP showed one-third of U.S. shoppers plan to continue buying clothing online, while 25% intend to keep ordering groceries that way.

U.S. Department of Commerce announces the Q2 2021 e-commerce retail sales estimate August 19. 

How does this affect your cost?

Do you use poly mailers, shipping bags or shrink film? Ongoing domestic demand driven by e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, hygiene, food and home meal deliveries all pressure prices on polyethylene products used in your supply chain.

  • Resin prices up 87% cumulatively over the past 12 months.
  • Suppliers announced 5-7 cent per pound increase in June, following a 5-6 cent increase in May.
  • Supply is extremely constrained, and sales allocations or force majeures remain in place for most producers.
  • Upcoming hurricane season could exacerbate supply constraints as plant operations struggle to reach full capacity.

Transportation Rates Environment: Small Parcel

Ongoing issues will continue into Q3. Capacity constraints will become more pronounced ahead of the holiday peak season as retail sales events such as Amazon Prime Day, back-to-school and Labor Day sales events lead into a holiday peak season beginning in October.

UPS continues to focus on value versus volumes. If a shipper’s volumes are not profitable to UPS, they could either be dropped as a customer, experience capacity cuts and/or higher rates and surcharges. FedEx is also embracing value over volumes and is implementing similar measures.

COVID-related peak surcharges from UPS remain in place apart from surcharge changes implemented on July 4 and continuing through Jan. 15. Based on how much a shipper’s average weekly volume increases compared to the average weekly volume in February 2020, the surcharges could reach $6.15 per package.  

Large package shippers face additional problems with UPS surcharge increases, including a 50-cent hike on “additional handling” effective July 4. From Oct. 3 until Jan. 15, that fee increases to $6 per package, a jump of $3 compared to today’s cost.

FedEx is likely to follow suit with similar surcharge changes for holiday peak season.

Crowd-sourced delivery platforms such as Instacart and DoorDash are expanding their partnerships with retailers and services. Other logistics providers are moving into the parcel management space. We will likely see more moves linking freight brokerage and parcel management as a way to provide a one-stop-shop to find parcel shipping capacity.

Q3 Action Advice: Parcel Transportation

Diversification of last-mile solutions will be even more important as more carriers limit capacity. Shippers need to quickly lock in capacity requirements with carrier partners for the peak holiday season and also have back-up plans just in case carriers cut shippers’ capacity. A contract will not necessarily save a shipper.

For the rest of this year and likely into 2022, shippers need to be creative in managing their last-mile strategies while keeping a careful watch on their costs. Those with storefronts will prove successful by offering alternative last-mile solutions such as curbside and buy-online-pick-up in-store (BOPIS). Shippers without a physical store may want to consider partnering with a storefront retailer or another operator. 

Shippers will continue to struggle with higher supply chain costs, capacity constraints and delays for the foreseeable future. As a result, regular communications with supply chain partners and customers will be necessary as inventory stockouts, and delivery delays may become the norm versus the exception in the coming months 

Transportation Rates Environment: Less-than-Load

Q3 is busy season for LTL transportation. This year, expect costs to increase and service to decline as capacity gets tighter and temporary targeted embargoes continue.

  • Labor shortages accompany the summer vacation season for LTL drivers and dock workers. Open positions with high wages and sign-on bonuses are difficult to fill.
  • Retail volume is moving in support of the Q4 holiday peak.
  • As parcel service levels suffer, shipment consolidation drives volume into LTL.

Many major carriers are not accepting new business, and others that are taking RFQs will not likely publish until later in the quarter.

National LTL fuel surcharge averages are consistently trending upward.

Expect some carriers to pursue out-of-cycle annual business reviews and implement transportation rate increases, especially if your shipping characteristics are cost-intensive.

Maintain skepticism for carriers’ announced “on-time performance” especially as service delay designations can eliminate shipments from that metric.

The FedEx Freight move to reduce outbound volume for 1,400 customers – and then rescind the service cuts following blowback from large retailers – is indicative of ongoing capacity challenges. Other carriers are asking customers to limit shipment sizes in certain lanes.

Potential Disruption: On July 5, FedEx Freight implements an unprecedented peak surcharge on LTL shipments to nearly 1,000 zip codes, about 2.3% of zip codes in the U.S. Th

Q3 Action Advice: LTL Transportation

Stick with your existing carrier partners. Collaborate with them to work through service issues. Consider an alternate approach to cost control.

  • Blocking a service provider only puts your committed capacity into the hands of another shipper.
  • When many carriers are not accepting new business, you might not find capacity elsewhere.
  • In the current environment, another provider is unlikely to improve service levels.

Allow for more time in transit and plan accordingly. Important steps to take include setting expectations with consignees, adjusting inbound material orders to maintain production and communicating with customer service to prepare for response.

Regional and deferred-service carriers, even local couriers, offer alternatives for small impact moves where there’s no capacity available or you are affected by an embargo (including FedEx Freight’s limit on volume). Expect a slower level of service. which is better than no service. Expect a slower level of service.

Transportation Rates Environment: Full Truckload

All indicators point toward a full truckload environment with tighter capacity, elevated contract transportation rates and astronomical spot rates continuing into Q3.

  • Truck delivery delays
  • Inability to hire drivers
  • Ongoing capacity demand

Recent Purchasing Managers Indexes revealed elevated expectations for future growth in production – and products on the road.

Food and beverage shippers moving freight into grocery warehouses continue to face chargebacks for missing delivery times or not fulfilling an order in full.

Expect a brief “breather” toward the end of July, potentially into August and September, but do not plan for a downward trend in rates and capacity demand ahead of the retail peak season.

Produce season in Q3 creates added strain on capacity in traditional patterns that vary market to market, but don’t expect it to be more than another aggravator in the cost environment.

International shipping disruption continues to waterfall into over-the-road transportation:

  • Smaller shipments are moving into LTL lanes.
  • Increased on-shoring of manufacturing is driving more freight into over-the-road capacity.
  • Intermodal transit times and rates are up, eliminating modal conversion as an option.

While some spot market rate relief may come in late July, do not expect contract rates to follow.

Q3 Action Advice: Truckload Transportation

Be flexible with pick-ups and deliveries – even within shipping hours.

Lead time goes hand-in-hand with flexibility, and it is paramount to tender acceptance.

Maintain a realistic understanding of your capacity consumption and carrier service levels.

Carriers are not chasing higher-dollar freight, generally, but they may be hauling an equal or larger volume of business than last year in a more cost-intensive, capacity constrained environment – especially if your sales are up.

For freight enduring added cost when moving into a facility with a chargeback program for “on time and in full” (OTIF), understand the cause and frequency of the charge and make a business decision of absorbing that cost versus penalizing your carrier partner. Penalizing your partner may mean paying more on every load.

Transportation Rates Environment: International

Coming into traditional peak season in the August timeframe, COVID-driven port closures in southern China are causing severe disruption in ocean shipping. This will have a long-lasting effect on supply and demand for containers, ocean and air capacity. Demand for inbound shipments will continue to surge.

Everything that is moving is moving at a premium and moving with surcharges. Shipping costs are at historically high levels. These costs are going to increase in a substantial way over the quarter, in some lanes by multiples of their cost prior to COVID.

Demand for air freight is increasing, driving up costs as capacity issues build, especially until passenger flights fully resume. This limits further your ability to contingency plan for international freight.

Port congestion on the U.S. West Coast is slowly improving. It is still a challenge, but throughput is gradually getting better. The opposite is true on the Asian side of the balance, but as ports re-open fully returning vessels could make West Coast ports a greater pinch point.

Expect ocean shipping disruption to continue through peak season. This not only affects significant volumes coming from Asia, it affects U.S. exports as well. Container demand in Asia is high and drawing empty equipment back to China without waiting to match with a U.S. export load. This will continue to have an impact into Q4 and 2022.

Q3 Action Advice: International Transportation

Acknowledge the reality, prepare for higher costs, and consider a unique approach. Larger companies with buying power are being extremely creative to solve challenges. Not every business can buy a container ship (like Home Depot), but small- and medium-sized business need to explore outside-the-box solutions.

Be prepared to quickly shift modes, going from ocean to air. Find ways to shift equipment, taking advantage of capacity where you can find it, even if it isn’t your typical container. Can you mix up how you are consolidating? Be flexible about your point of origin.

Strength of partnership is more important than ever. A lot of shippers are fighting for space, and it is not just a cost game. This is where it helps to have trusted providers in place.

Import planning and forecasting is difficult in this environment. Depending on your industry, planning and projections are traditionally complete for the coming peak season. This environment calls for extending that timeline forward where you can, working with vendors and planning on a longer time horizon. This can help avoid disruption and position you to better react when it does happen.

Examine your inventory planning as ongoing disruption strains just-in-time strategies. Conditions in the transportation marketplace may factor into the discussion around a different inventory approach that mitigates risk and buffers some of the impact on the end customer.

Transportation Rates Environment: Indirect Spend

Freight and labor costs, as well as demand, are up in recycled paper and corrugate markets.

  • Paper costs increased $100/ton cumulatively the past six months, but stability is expected until Q4.
  • Recycled paper demand was up 6% in Q1.
  • New grocery bag machines coming online adds additional pressure on kraft paper supply.
  • Two large lightweight kraft paper producers left the market, transitioning to alternate heavyweight kraft and linerboard products. Mills are “sold out,” and inventory is 75% of desired levels.
  • Box shipments were up 6-8% in Q1.

Linerboard costs increase $110/ton cumulatively since November 2020. Carton prices up as much 20%.

  • Box shipments were up 6-8% in Q1, and containerboard mills are unable to keep up with demand increases. Production was up 9% in March, year-over-year.
  • Old Corrugated Containers Prices increased in May for the sixth consecutive month.

Major office paper producers announced increases to take effect July 1 after 6-8% increase in March.

Pallet Prices are up +50%, and supply is very short. Manufacturers are urging shippers to find alternatives.

Truckload Transportation Market Conditions

  • Truckload transportation rates forecast to remain high but steady, then increasing during capacity crunch season, which accompanies the produce season and leads up until the July 4 holiday.
  • Fuel prices are part of the conversation again. EIA forecasts predict summer diesel prices will be higher than last year but then reflect a normal dip.
  • Most equipment types (van and reefer) are experiencing a drop in demand, but do not expect a dramatic effect on rates.
  • Short-term contracts will come at premium rates and so will spot market pricing, but tender acceptance will be good.
  • International Road Check may cause disruption May 4-6 and into the following week. Demand may increase due to reduced freight movement during the highway safety inspections.
  • Advice for Q2: Maintain consistency with your carriers, trying to contract where possible to avoid an elevated spot market. Care­ful procurement practices in the months ahead (contract vs. spot market freight) sets the stage to capture downward price trends in transportation rates during the second half of 2021.

Less-than-Load Transportation Market Conditions

  • Demand on LTL capacity is unprecedented, driving some carriers to decline new or expanded business in order protect service to their existing customers.
  • Expect embargoes to continue in lanes affected by volume spikes and capacity constraints.
  • Carriers continue to scrutinize each piece of business, monitoring payables, escalating collections, limiting credit and diverting capacity to “shipper of choice” customers.
  • Pricing renewals are increasing and so are rates sought by LTL carriers, especially those emboldened by aggressive new price “right-sizing” promised by UPS Freight’s new owners, TFI International.
  • Q2 Advice: Rely on analysis – not rates – to achieve savings. There’s no ground to gain in procurement and rate negotiations, but routing decisions and least-cost carrier selection will maximize your transportation dollars.

Small Parcel Transportation Market Conditions

  • Both UPS and FedEx are taking a more intentional approach to pricing.
  • FedEx rebrand from SmartPost to Ground Economy opens opportunity for broad pricing adjustments focused on improving revenue quality of packages delivered.
  • UPS “better not bigger” approach is emerging: evaluation of customer contracts, volume caps and negotiation of mid-term increases to certain customers.
  • Capacity challenges continue for FedEx, UPS and every major regional small pack­age carrier, allowing each to be selective on the volume they accept.
  • Peak surcharges and certain suspended service guarantees spurred by COVID continue – but for how long? UPS and FedEx re-instated guarantees for some services, but we expect many others to be suspended until the country re-opens more fully.
  • The UPS move to zonal pricing for Additional Handling Surcharge and the Large Package Surcharge will have a material impact for many shippers.
  • Fuel surcharges are escalating quickly since the start of 2021.
  • Advice for Q2: Begin planning for Christmas 2021 today. Lessons learned through expert analysis of your 2020 data can help you design a small parcel program that protects your profit margin, controls cost and supports service to your customers.

International Transportation Market Conditions

  • Lingering effects of the Suez Canal disruption will continue for several months.
  • Port congestion has expanded beyond West Coast backlogs to include East Coast ports, and booking availability is sparse after an over-booked April.
  • Ocean transportation rates remain high, capacity is still extremely tight and the challenges in the domestic logistics funnel (drayage and rail) remain high.
  • Tightening ocean capacity is driving up demand and rates for air freight.
  • Advice for Q2: Reassess your inventory strategy. Global supply chain disruptions highlight the weakness of lean, just-in-time practices and may emphasize your need for additional buffer inventory, especially if your e-commerce fulfillment relies on import/export activity. Contingency planning should be part of each strategic planning meeting as we go through 2021.

Indirect Spend Market Conditions

  • E-Commerce demand is growing faster than capacity and packaging costs continue to climb.
  • Corrugated prices increased 10-12% in March – on top of increases announced in November 2020.
  • Expect stretch film manufacturers to announce another increase in April.
  • Paper board tubes and cores are increasing at least 6%.
  • Lead times are expanding out to 4-8 weeks.
  • Costs are up 17% since November 2020 on recovered paper and old corrugated containers (OCC).
  • Two large office supply providers announced copy paper increases of 6-8% in March.
  • According to the ISM Report on Business, activity in U.S. manufacturing grew for the 10th consecutive month in March, reaching a PMI reading of 64.7 – the highest in 37 years. The U.S. Industrial Production Index registered 104.65 in February – up 13.38% since March 2020.

Economic Conditions: Diesel Fuel Prices Climbing

U.S. diesel fuel prices have climbed 32.1% from a low in November. That is affecting transportation costs. Parcel carriers are escalating fuel surcharges, and fuel costs will be an increasing factor for over-the-road freight. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts summer diesel prices will be higher than last year.

Energy Information Administration’s Diesel Fuel Prices through May 10, 2021.

Average retail price per gallon was $3.18 on May 10, up 4 cents from May 3, but still below the March 22 peak of $3.19, the highest average since Dec. 3, 2018. Diesel fuel prices averaged $2.55/gal in 2020. EIA’s updated 2021 forecast, as of May 10, is an average $2.97/gal., a 3-cent increase compared to last month’s estimate.

Economic Conditions: Transportation Rates Affect Profit

The Producer Price Index (PPI) measures cost trends for everything manufactured in the U.S. This custom performance index reflects the rate of PPI change compared to the rate of change in transportation costs.

Producer Price Index compared to increasing transportation rates from 2007 through Q1 2021.

Performance indices for Parcel, LTL and Truckload increased year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter as capacity constraints persist across all modes. Of note, costs increased 13.85% YOY for truckload. LTL increased 7.85% compared to 2020, and 9.59% compared to Q1. Parcel continues to lead all indices, climbing 5.84% since last year and 6.52% since last quarter.

Economic Conditions: E-Commerce Sales Climb Continues

Total estimated e-commerce sales for 2020 reached $791.7 billion, an increase of 32.4% from 2019.

E-commerce sales in 2020 accounted for 14% of all U.S. retail sales, which increased 3.4% in 2019.

Fourth quarter e-commerce sales reached $245.3 billion, a 23.1% increase over third quarter 2020. Year-over-year, the fourth quarter 2020 e-commerce estimate increased 32.1% compared to the same period in 2019.

Looking ahead, expect Amazon Prime Day on June 21-22 to drive an uptick in e-commerce activity, as well as a bump in small parcel volume.

E-Commerce Retail Sales as a percentage of retail sales continue to climb, reaching a peak at the start of pandemic in Q2 2020.

U.S. Department of Commerce announces e-commerce retail sales estimates for Q1 2021 on May 18.

Transportation Industry Outlook: Q1 2021

Truckload Forecast: Freight Rate Increases Continue

  • Given ongoing capacity constraints, the truckload market will see rates continue to increase for at least the first half of 2021.
Expect Q1 Truckload rates to increase 3-5% for contracted lanes and 5-7% on spot market bids.

  • More shippers will lock in contractual transportation rates.
  • Expect an uptick in tender acceptance and improved ability to move freight with primary, secondary and tertiary carriers.
  • Stabilization and loosening of West Coast intermodal volume allows shippers with network visibility to seize cost savings. Expect some stabilization after the Chinese New Year.
  • Capacity will improve and alleviate rate pressure following a boom in new equipment purchases.
  • Working with Transportation Insight helps make you a shipper of choice to mitigate increases to transportation rates, strengthen service and improve access to capacity.

LTL Forecast: Freight Capacity Shortages, Volume Levels Increase

  • Expect capacity shortages, service charges and elevated rates to continue.
  • LTL volume levels will maintain or increase throughout 2021.
  • Carriers continue to be selective about the new business they accept.
  • Service challenges will continue in California in the foreseeable future
  • Detention and storage charges have become more common.
  • Shippers who continually switch carriers to improve service may find their efforts fruitless. Conversely, “shipper of choice” practices deliver rewards.

Small Parcel Forecast: Surcharges, Cost Complexity Continue

  • UPS reinstated Pre-Holiday Peak Surcharges until further notice:
    • UPS Ground Residential Service and UPS SurePost, as well as large packages and those that require additional handling.
    • Surcharges on Ground Residential and SurePost packages will apply to any shipper that has shipped more than 25,000 packages in any single week since February 2020.
  • FedEx Peak Surcharges will continue, with new rates implemented for some services until further notice:
    • 75-cent SmartPost surcharge – down from $1-$2 in place for the holiday season, but higher than the 40-cent surcharge in June.
    • $30 surcharge on oversized package – down from current $52.50
    • Additional handling will be reduced from $4.90 to $3.
    • Expect a competitive, but rational parcel shipping landscape to emerge later this year.
  • Look for more parcel competitors to grab opportunities the larger carriers are overlooking. Heightened competition will benefit shippers who can optimize carrier utilization.
  • Make sure you understand how carrier limitations and geographic volume/service trends affect your unique shipments.
  • Coming April 11, UPS changes to zonal pricing for its Additional Handling and Large Package Surcharges.

International Forecast: Record Rates, Equipment Sparse

  • International shipping demand is unseasonably high.
  • Capacity is committed for much of Q1, especially up to and through the Chinese New Year.
  • Equipment availability is sparse in most Asian markets.
  • Expect rates to remain at record levels, even after the Chinese New Year allows the industry a chance to catch up, before looking at any stabilization.
  • New federal administration might eventually bring trade compliance changes, but too early to tell how China 301 will be affected.
  • Port and rail congestion are causing ripples in cost and service across domestic transportation modes.
  • E-commerce demand and vaccine distribution will continue to drive capacity challenges far into 2021.

Indirect Spend Forecast: Packaging Costs Increasing

  • Resin prices continue to push up with major manufacturers Dow, Chevron and Exxon Mobil announcing additional increases in January 2021. Combined with the mid-year 2020 increases, costs of poly-based packaging products are up 20-25%.
  • Linerboard manufacturers pushed through a paper increase of $50 per ton in late November, driving up corrugate prices.
  • The ISM Report on Business closed December at its highest reading for manufacturers in 2.5 years, with a reading of 60.7%. The New Orders Index and Production Index was above 60% for the sixth straight month.

Ocean Transportation Woes Ripple Freight Supply Chains

Ocean Transportation is Affecting Your Freight Movements

Global supply chain challenges we still face in the wake of pandemic will only become worse as the latest global incident ripples across international and domestic transportation networks for months to come.

Before the Suez spectacle unfolded across the world’s media in March, the international freight-shipping environment faced a capacity crunch, high rates and slowdowns on the West Coast ports. Many companies have already been considering strategic changes to their supply chains, including their inventory management philosophy.

Now that traffic is moving again through the shortest route between Europe and Asia, let’s examine how this ocean transportation disruption unwinds for North American shippers moving freight in the months ahead.

Ocean Transportation Rates, Capacity in Q2

Rates have not contracted at all through the first of the year. Ocean shipping saw 12 consecutive general rate increases starting in June and ending in October. Rates have remained high ever since – even through the traditional drop in demand between the end of peak season and the Chinese New Year.

Much of this is due to an ongoing capacity crunch. The logistics funnel is feeling the impact of domestic challenges for rail and extremely high demand on drayage, especially for the West Coast ports. Conditions there improved slightly, but just as we saw light at the end of the tunnel with 18-20 vessels in line to unload container shipping halted in the Middle East.

Now the port problems extend to the East Coast. Shippers will struggle to find bookings for April and May arrivals, especially as retail based BCOs (beneficial cargo owners) are claiming significant capacity through the canal into Houston.

In the immediate term, we could see upward pressure on ocean rates. Some have already reached “fall-out-of-the-chair” levels. Plus, with less available capacity on the ocean side, there is a big demand on air freight for shippers and importers that cannot wait on a delay. That will drive a spike in air freight rates in the near term, illustrated by an uptick of $3 per kilo over the past few weeks.

Capacity Challenges Beyond Shipping Containers

Not all of the capacity problems are about containers shipping on the water.

It will take weeks if not months for ships slowed in the Suez to arrive at destination. The larger problem: all those vessels are already booked into peak season. If one vessel is caught up in the Suez or the West Coast situations, and they are put three weeks behind, that trickles down into the rest of the sailings.

To be clear, I am still bullish on the ocean transportation market. Ocean carriers are making record returns on high rates. But we should all know, vessel operators do not like the operational challenges any more than the BCOs. The next 10 weeks are critical in bringing the industry in order prior to peak ocean shipping season in 2021.

Some predict there is a two-month window where the industry can catch up with itself. That prediction assumes nothing else happens before late summer. As we have learned in the past 18 months, there are few assurances as far as once-in-a-career calamities are concerned.

International Trade Compliance is Still on the Radar

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is very active right now and operating in a revenue-generating mindset. Trade enforcement officers are proactively examining the ACE Portal. They are trying to find situations where a shipper is manipulating the Harmonized Tariff System to limit the impact of tariffs and duties.

Meanwhile, there does not appear to be any immediate movement on trade relations with China, or with China 301. Your compliance protocols require the ongoing scrutiny applied during the previous federal administration.

With the extraordinary amount of activity coming through the ports, CBP faces similar capacity challenges to BCOs, vessel operators and port operators. The difference: trade enforcement officers have technology to help which is always powerful.

Adapting to Disruption in Ocean Transportation

Problems in the Suez Canal add another big supply chain disruption on top of the COVID-19 whiplash, which is still causing massive challenges. Of course, supply chain disruptions come in different categories. COVID was a one-time event. In some ways, the Suez was, too.

When multiple “one-time events” come in quick succession, however, many companies begin thinking about their broader supply chain strategy. One glaring learning from the pandemic: an over-dependence on the import supply chain, particularly with China, have become unbearably problematic.

Import volatility has pulled inventory management into the spotlight. International just-in-time planning for inbound materials became part of a very leaned-out supply chain for many companies. Some of those organizations are reassessing their inventory approach, realizing you cannot sell it if you do not have it.

Erring on the side of caution, moving an organization from just-in-time inventory to a just-in-case buffer inventory brings its own challenges. Our warehousing partners are not only at capacity but also reluctant to acquire more space. They fear the next disruption around the corner – or the ever-growing area that is e-commerce.

We are still feeling that bubble. COVID caused us all to start shopping online. Now that health risks are receding, convenience and consumer habits will only build the e-commerce retail channel that grew 32.4 percent last year compared to 2019.

That presents a puzzle of balancing inventory build to limit cost and operational needs against the prospects of e-commerce growth and developing the volume of inventory required to service digital sales needs. The last thing you want is a customer visiting your site only to find you are out of stock. Two clicks to your competitor is simply too close for comfort.

Mitigate the Risk of Ocean Transportation

In the long-term, costs rule most transportation planning strategies. The past 18 months have taught us that other factors need to be in focus as well. That is why Transportation Insight initiates broader supply chain conversations with our customers. Controlling cost while effectively managing the movement of your freight across your end-to-end supply chain relies on numerous factors.

We take the larger picture into consideration. We help shippers evaluate the transportation environment and determine the right go-forward strategy that controls cost and protects service. That may mean analyzing options for re-shoring or near-shoring. It may also mean leveraging deep data analysis to help you identify the inventories of materials or finished goods that are most critical to the success and growth of your organization.

And with the uncertainty of e-commerce, we focus on providing hybrid-digital solutions that evolve alongside your business to meet your needs as they change.

For a deeper dive into transportation management for the months ahead, register for our Q2 Transportation Trends webinar. It features forecasts and analysis from our multi-modal experts in truckload, less-than-load, small parcel and international ocean transportation.

LTL Freight Shipping Faces Pressure on Capacity and Rates

LTL freight shipping challenges have left many pallets dockside.

Some LTL carriers are declining new business – even expanded volume from existing customers. I have never seen that happen. Others are selective about the freight they will move. Even the best LTL freight shipping carriers are missing pick-ups because they lack the equipment and workforce required to keep up with demand.

And hard to believe the constant embargoes that continue to be announced in North America’s largest transportation hubs.

While circumstances seem severe, I believe it is only a matter of time before the market corrects again. Until then, your ability to control your LTL freight shipping costs depends on proactive steps that will also go a long way toward protecting your service.

LTL Freight Pricing Renewals Increase

Carriers continue to closely examine their business, their customers and their operating margins. We are seeing an increase in both the volume of pricing renewals and the rates carriers are seeking in those requests. Double-digit cost increases are even emerging for customers with dense “cubed” freight, often the most lucrative shippers for LTL carriers.

Expect that to continue in the second quarter, especially if carriers try to capitalize by market chatter in the wake of the sale of UPS Freight to TFI International whose CEO is promising to bring a new “level of profitability” for the LTL services provider now branded as TForce Freight. Other carriers may try to capitalize on a rate-increase environment, and that could drive all pricing up.

Beyond renewals, LTL carriers are scrutinizing payables closely. In the 2020 pandemic peak, aging grew for many shipper balances. Remote environments slowed the manual paper trail for many businesses. Leeway granted last year has disappeared, and conversations around outstanding bills are becoming more serious for anyone who slips past payment terms.

Slow- and no-pay shippers are often the first targets for LTL carriers with more freight than they can handle. Customers who don’t pay on time – usually 30 days depending on your agreement – may be put on “cash only” terms until the outstanding balance is resolved. In extreme cases, carriers may hold freight – instead of dedicating LTL delivery capacity to customers who pay on time.

LTL Capacity Drives Freight Acceptance

It is not unusual for LTL freight service providers to be selective about the business they accept or the freight they move. In 2018-19 when capacity was tight, we saw carriers avoid long freight or over-sized shipments. When they accepted loads with unusual sizes, they increased the charges for it.

Now even extra charges will not sway service. Carriers are scrambling to rent trailers, hire workers and move freight. They are doing the best they can, but embargoes are still occurring in lanes where capacity gets too tight.

Ordinarily, Q1 brings a slow period for LTL carriers – a time when they can catch up ahead of the traditional peak months starting in August. Without that recovery time, some are declining new business during Q2 this year. We’ve seen some carriers not accepting any RFQs, even for existing customers adding volume – for new locations or additional business of their own.

Simply put, LTL carriers are concerned about the volumes they face when the traditional uptick in business occurs. Inventories are low for many retailers. Manufacturing and distributors are playing catch-up. If that continues into the fall, a tight capacity environment may continue throughout the year.

If that scenario motivates more carriers to decline new volume, keep in mind they are doing it to protect the service they are providing to their existing customer base.

Internal Steps for Better LTL Service

“How can I become a better shipper?”

The answers to that question can go a long way toward controlling your LTL freight shipping costs in the months ahead. Your LTL service provider knows what to do to take cost out of their business. Your logistics partner can help you find solutions that will remove additional cost.

This is a time when our LTL team is especially focused on mitigating cost increases to our customers as much as possible. You likely will not find savings on rates in a contract renewal right now, so understanding and utilizing least-cost carrier options is essential. That least-cost carrier may not be your primary carrier, but we encounter many shippers who could realize significant savings by choosing that option.

You have to be willing to let your transportation management system (TMS) do its job by recommending the best routing decisions and driving compliance throughout the organization.

It also helps to be a shipper of choice. That is often a conversation in truckload transportation, but this is a time where customers who pay attention to that are seeing dividends. A lot of decisions involving trailer availability are being made at local terminal levels. Those shippers with good relationships, those who treat local terminal drivers and manager with respect, they will be the shippers who get preferential treatment.

LTL Partner Helps You Ship Smarter

The LTL transportation environment faces unprecedented challenges, but the pendulum always swings and shifts control from LTL carriers back in to the shippers’ hands. It is just a matter of time. Can you afford to wait it out?

A partner who can help technology that supports optimal routing decisions can help you ship smarter. Analytics of your LTL delivery data, transportation trends and customer demands can help you improve network design and mode selection to protect cost further – and improve your customer service.

For forecasts and analysis across transportation modes – including truckload, parcel and international shipping – be sure to watch Supply Chain Forecast 2021: Q2 Transportation Trends. Our transportation management experts share their predictions, industry analysis and actionable guidance to support your business performance.