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. 

Carrier Surcharges: What’s the Real Impact?

Now we know more peak carrier surcharges are on the way for the traditional holiday season. Between the major carriers, the UPS plan is quite a bit different than the FedEx strategy for applying new costs.

FedEx has set peak surcharges to begin as they plan to pull back the COVID surcharges, in essence, keeping the charges in place through the Christmas season. The biggest difference between the FedEx and the UPS charges is the SmartPost charge. It appears all SmartPost customers will have the charge, while the UPS and Home Delivery surcharges will be used for larger customers.

In particular, it appears the FedEx SmartPost charge looks to jump 100% for one week in December and then drop back to $1 the remainder of the season. This type of complexity between carriers and service impacts makes it difficult to manage cost.

Unlike global changes that impact all shippers (i.e., the modification in dimensional weight definitions introduced in 2015 and again in 2018), surcharges affect companies differently.

For example: 

  • An e-commerce apparel company sending most of its orders to residential addresses likely felt the brunt of COVID-related surcharges. 
  • A large B2B company delivering primarily to commercial addresses, on the other hand, was likely shielded from the brunt of these impacts, unless they were moving larger packages. 

The good news is that even though individual companies can’t control parcel carriers’ surcharges, they can minimize the budgetary impact with accurate shipping data, experienced logistics partners, and quick responses to carrier announcements.

What are Carrier Surcharges Costing You?

One 30-cent surcharge on a residential parcel shipment may seem innocuous. Multiply that fee across thousands of parcel shipments, and it’s clear just how burdensome this unexpected fee can be to a company’s bottom line. 

Furthermore, spend management becomes more complicated when carrier surcharges are based on average volume benchmarks, especially when they become retroactive to all shipments once thresholds are crossed.

Consider this: 

If a retailer averages 200,000 weekly packages shipped through UPS Ground Residential or SurePost in February, what’s the cost impact of a 30-cent surcharge when that volume increases to 250,000 weekly packages?

*After average threshold is exceeded, surcharge applies to all packages shipped.

  • If a distributor averages 50,000 weekly packages shipped residential through FedEx Ground, what’s the cost impact of a 30-cent surcharge when that weekly volume increases by 75,000 packages?

*FedEx surcharge volume threshold was higher at 40,000, and included the stipulation that weekly volume had to be 120% higher than the February weekly average.

Factor in any additional fees for oversized packages, and a shipper operating on tight margins can quickly find itself losing money on every order. And without a plan for dealing with unexpected surcharges, SKU profitability moves out of reach quickly. 

Adding to the complexity, carriers can make changes in how or when surcharges are applied – at any time. We saw this with the reduction in dimensions and weight for when carriers applied additional handling surcharges.

Although not a specifically a surcharge, shippers saw a significant change with the migration of the DIM factor from 194 to 139, which increases the billable weight for many packages.

Manage Carrier Surcharges to Avoid Budget Shock

Both the predictable and unexpected carrier surcharges are likely here to stay.

As you plan your transportation spend for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, be sure to factor in the reality of carrier surcharges. It doesn’t take a global pandemic to create peak season pressure on carriers’ profitability and spur added fees on your parcel shipments. 

While none of us has a crystal ball — nor can we control the steps carriers take to shore up their own operations during peaks and difficult periods — preparing in advance, understanding the impetus behind the charges, and taking the proactive steps can improve your ability to control costs in the current and future parcel freight environments.

To help you improve your ability to plan for and respond to carrier surcharges, we created “Manage the Surge: Avoid Surcharge Shocks, Power Performance.” It explores the how and why behind parcel carriers’ cost-recovery tactics. Read it today for the strategies you need to power a parcel program response that offsets these costs and protects your profit.

Manage Surcharges: 4 Things to Know for Holiday Season

Less predictable, peak surcharges are creating additional complexity for parcel pricing, especially as UPS announces its holiday peak season surcharges. These new charges come in addition to similar costs in place the past few months. Combined, it is a difficult environment to manage surcharges.

For example, a parcel carrier may announce a general rate increase of 4.9%, but this is an average taken across all services, weight breaks, and zones. In reality, many rate increases are above 6% when applied to a shipper’s actual volume. 

Predictable by nature, these annual increases are usually baked into the “cost of doing business” for shippers, many of which understand that the GRI impact on their transportation rates is at least an increase of about 5% annually. 

Now, carriers are introducing accessorial surcharges at different times throughout the year in response to seasonal demand swings and business peaks. These unexpected peak season surcharges can be difficult to manage, especially during a global pandemic when dynamic shifts are occurring across the marketplace. 

Here are four things all shippers should know about peak season surcharges in 2020.

  1. Peak Season Surcharges Becoming Routine It pays to stay on top of these variations and respond accordingly. Companies that take proactive measures to offset pending surcharges are often best positioned to maintain profitability, protect their bottom lines, and keep their customers happy (and coming back for more).

    Alongside existing peak surcharges implemented earlier in 2020, UPS announced it will increase surcharges for the holiday season. Starting Nov. 15, surcharges on Ground, SurePost and domestic Air services will increase to between $1 and $4 per package, depending on the shippers’ parcel volume. At a minimum, that triples the increases implemented May 31.
  2. Parcel Carriers Felt the COVID-19 Impact During the traditional holiday season, UPS and FedEx often start hiring up to six months ahead of time. They also require larger shippers to provide volume estimates to support capacity planning. Staffed and trained, the carriers position everyone for success during the busiest time of the year. 

    These proactive moves weren’t possible during the global pandemic, and that’s precisely why the surcharges surfaced quickly in 2020.
  3. Residential Deliveries Bear the Brunt of COVID Surcharges Surcharges surfaced quickly in 2020, with higher costs on residential deliveries and large package shipments to homes and businesses quickly consuming the carriers’ margins. In response, UPS and FedEx implemented peak surcharges for U.S. domestic residential shipments and large/oversize packages due to the increased demand. UPS implemented the new charges on May 31, and FedEx quickly followed on June 8. 

    Not all shippers were caught in this particular surcharge web. Some charges solely affected large shippers with significant increases in residential deliveries compared to their average pre-pandemic weekly volume from Feb. 2 and Feb. 29, 2020.
  4. Advance Peak Season Surcharge Planning Isn’t Easy Budget planning to manage surcharges isn’t easy in an environment where these increases can arise unexpectedly. No one was prepared for the massive impacts of COVID-19, for example, so shippers had little (or no) time to prepare in advance for the surcharges. 

    The good news is that even though individual companies can’t control parcel carriers’ surcharges, they can minimize the budgetary impact with accurate shipping data, experienced logistics partners, and quick responses to carrier announcements. 

Avoid Peak Season Surcharge Shock

As you plan your transportation spend for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, be sure to factor in the reality of “unexpected” carrier surcharges. It doesn’t take a global pandemic to create peak season pressure on carriers’ profitability and spur added fees on your parcel shipments. At the same time, in the wake of COVID-19, expect significant changes in the last-mile delivery environment, especially in terms of pricing complexity.

Individually, a 30-cent surcharge on a residential parcel shipment may seem innocuous. Multiply that fee across thousands of packages, and it’s clear just how burdensome this unexpected fee can be to a company’s bottom line. 

Remember the proverb: forewarned is forearmed. Prior knowledge of a potential issue will always give you a tactical advantage.

To help you avoid surcharge surprises, we created “Manage the Surge: Avoid Surcharge Shocks, Power Performance.” It explores the how and why behind parcel carriers’ cost-recovery tactics. Read it today for the strategies you need to power a parcel program response that offsets these costs and protects your profit.