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. 

The Logistics of Valentine’s Day: Signed, Sealed and Delivered

February 14 marks the most romantic day on the calendar: Valentine’s Day. It’s certainly not a cheap endeavor: The National Retail Federation estimates Americans will spend a record $27.4 billion on their showcases of love this year, with an average spend of $196.31 per person. 

While it’s not unusual to be loved by anyone, making sure every rose, heart-shaped chocolate box and sentimental card takes an unusual amount of effort. Valentine’s Day is the second busiest time of the year for shippers, behind only the Christmas season. And just like for Christmas holiday shipping, the logistics of Valentine’s Day highlights how the right supply chain network is needed to delight every end customer – no matter what product you’re providing.

We love and care for supply chains. That’s why I wanted to share some thoughts on the logistics of Valentine’s Day – so you can understand how suppliers and shipping companies ensure everything arrives on time – before the last candlelight dinner ends.

Flowers, Chocolates, and Cards: Managing Valentine’s Day From Multiple Fronts

With the shortest shelf life of all traditional Valentine’s Day gifts, fresh-cut flowers depend on the cold chain for success. Over 80% of flowers are imported, with most coming from Colombia. 

The International Trade Centre estimates over 500 million tons of flowers are sent for Valentine’s Day. After the flowers are harvested, the blooming buds are cooled to 35 degrees and loaded onto both commercial and freight aircraft for transport to the United States. 

At each point of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers thoroughly inspect every shipment for pests, disease and contraband. Once they clear Customs, it’s back to near-freezing temperatures for the flowers as they go to the warehouse, then the distribution center, before finally arriving at the florist. 

But what if there is a problem clearing Customs? Or a network disruption impacts a climate-controlled facility? Without the proper logistics processes – and contingency plans – one problem can quickly spoil the Valentine’s Day bouquet.

Many of these bouquets are accompanied by exquisite German chocolates. According to the UN Comtrade Database, 5.6% of all the chocolate imported into the United States comes from Germany. Getting the sweet treats to the United States poses an equally daunting task. 

While the chocolates can take an intermodal route into America, they have to be transported very carefully. After packaging, each load must be protected from moisture, humidity and temperature changes. The German Transport Information Service recommends all chocolates be transported in refrigerated containers to maintain the cold chain from start to finish. Doing that requires a lot of visibility to the product and its transit across the supply chain.

And what would these gifts be without the written words of love to accompany them? Hallmark estimates over 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged across the United States. The mid-February tradition is the second largest holiday for greeting cards, trailing only behind the Christmas season. 

As with anything you send through post or parcel service,  planning ahead is vital for mailing chocolate and gifts Based on the 2019 USPS holiday season estimates, sending gifts to APO, FPO and DPO addresses can take up to six weeks to arrive!If your loved ones are in America, you can still get away with Priority Shipping within the continental United States four days in advance. For those extreme procrastinators, a parcel carrier like UPS can guarantee delivery even if you are shipping on Feb. 13 – but it will cost you hundreds of dollars. 

Understanding the characteristics of your shipment – size, weight, destination and delivery timing – can help you avoid some of those costs, while still warming a heart at the end of the love line.

Tying The Logistics Knot 

In every stop, each of these gifts face unique challenges in their supply chains. Matching them all together requires an intricate dance that depends on every stage of the transportation process going nearly perfect. One mis-step in the supply chain, like exposing chocolates to moisture or keeping flowers outside a cold environment, results in a product that is unsellable.

Without proper planning and coordination of all the moving parts, your items could either arrive too early, or too late. Valentine’s Day gifts aren’t as effective on Feb. 13, and they’re completely useless on Feb. 15. 

The good news is that many of these situations can be mitigated using modern technology. While all the pieces are dependent upon each other to make Valentine’s Day pass without a hitch, technology plays a critical role in avoiding broken hearts.

To maintain quality, companies use robust logistics monitoring, modelling and execution tools. This supports planning for the most effective port of entry, warehouse and distribution center locations, and network reach. Often an enterprise logistics company helps analyze all these factors to determine the best route forward. Supply chain data combined with analysis supports  real-time decisions if there is disruption in the chain. 

Enterprise logistics providers also offer insightful observations when there are unique breaks in the supply chain. It is important to be able to trace and track every transportation activity in the best scenarios, just in case a contingency – or official record – is needed for the worst.

In those cases, the solution for wilted flowers is not the same as the solution for ruined chocolate. Sometimes it helps to have a partner that has experienced challenges in other just-in-time supply chains. They can bring an objective viewpoint to tie everything together and determine solutions if one piece breaks in the overall supply chains. 

We’ve created a map of your Valentine’s Day rose bouquet from the time it arrives in the U.S. to its last mile delivery to your door.