LTL Freight Shipping Faces Pressure on Capacity and Rates

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.

Freight Capacity Shortages and Service Challenges Persist

Freight Capacity Shortages and Service Challenges Persist

The Logistics Manager’s Index (LMI) showed a December 2020 logistics growth rate of 66.7, or about 12.7 points ahead of the 2019 rate. While a small drop from November’s 70.8, this may be more of a breather than a shift. The decline in growth rates are reflected in slight declines across all of the metrics of the LMI (except for the two freight capacity metrics which have increased).

Consumers show no signs of halting online shopping activity. In addition, the ramp-up of vaccine distribution, while it will hasten a return to some sort of normalcy, it will consume capacity. The upshot? Freight capacity shortages and service challenges likely will remain at some level.

LTL Market Bears Weight of Freight Volume Growth

Nearly all – 87.9 percent – survey respondents to a JOC survey in September and October 2020 indicated that longer transit times were a challenge. In addition, 47.2 percent experienced increased shipment loss or damages, and two-thirds had labor shortages.

The sustained growth in shipments across the logistics industry during 2020 contributed to these numbers. Tonnage in the LTL sector in November 2020 showed a 6 percent year-over-year increase in growth, according to the Cass Freight Index.

A few regions were especially hard hit. The Port of Los Angeles processed 889,748 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in November 2020, up 22 percent from a year earlier. During the same time, at least one carrier suspended financial guarantees for time-critical services in California and Portland, Oregon due to spiking COVID-19 cases among its drivers.

The increases in shipment volume also meant many distribution centers were taking longer to accept shipments. That led to backups with carriers. Detention and storage charges, formerly unheard of in the LTL market, have become more common.

Consolidation in the market continues among both larger and regional companies. Among these moves, Cross Country Freight Solutions announced in January the acquisition of Midwestern LTL carriers, Price Truck Lines and Mergenthaler Transportation. In September 2020, Forward Air Corporation, an asset-light freight and logistics company, announced its acquisition of the assets of CLW Delivery, Inc., a privately-held, final-mile provider with annual revenues of about $20 million.

Because capacity constraints show little sign of easing, service challenges likely will continue into early 2021. Expect corresponding impacts on rates in 2021

LTL Solidifies Residential Deliveries, Moves Toward Digitization

Many LTL carriers focused on effectively handling residential deliveries are exploring new methods, such as purchasing smaller trucks that can maneuver in neighborhoods and urban areas.

The LTL sector is steadily digitizing, with the formation in November 2020 of the Digital LTL Council, comprised of 20-plus transportation companies. Its goal is to establish a set of uniform standards that support the scalable automation and digitalization of LTL shipments.

Over the past year, some council members experimented with standards for electronic bill of lading (eBOL) solutions. Carriers that digitize could save up to 1.3 percent of costs. Digitization should also cut errors and allow all parties to quickly locate freight in transit.

Given ongoing tightness in the LTL market, carriers likely will be selective about the shippers with whom they partner. Shippers can make it easier for carriers by improving facilities where needed and facilitating efficient drop-offs and pickups.

Truckload Freight: Volume Up, Service Down

As in the LTL market, the truckload (TL) market is experiencing both sustained growth and service challenges. The American Trucking Association’s For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index rose by 3.7 percent in November, driven in part by robust e-commerce orders and strong single-family housing starts. At the same time, languishing restaurant, manufacturing and energy sectors remained a drag, the ATA noted.

Data from DAT Freight & Analytics shows another bifurcation in the truckload market. Dry van contract volumes were down 10 percent year-over-year, while spot market volumes were up 107 percent. Similarly, refrigerated contract volumes were down 21 percent, while spot market volumes had spiked 116 percent.

About 41 percent of carriers responding to the 22nd COVID-19 survey by Morgan Stanley, published in December 2020, indicated COVID-19 has hampered their ability to operate smoothly. The driver shortage was the most commonly cited reason, with varying emergency restrictions coming in second.

Freight Capacity Constraints Drive Up Truckload Rates

Given ongoing capacity constraints, the truckload market likely will see rates continue to increase for at least the first half of 2021. Transportation Insight expects contract rates to increase 3-5 percent, and spot rates to rise by about 5-7 percent.

However, some good news appears further out on the horizon. A smaller percentage of carriers responding to the Morgan Stanley COVID-19 survey – 36 percent versus the previous 39 percent – indicated the impact of COVID-19 would remain negative a year out.

In addition, truck sales are up nearly 197 percent year-over-year. As these come online, they will boost capacity, helping moderate the upward pressure on rates.

Several unknowns could affect the truckload market. They include the potential for another wave of shutdowns. Transportation has been considered an essential business, which should mitigate any impact.

Potential changes from the new presidential administration, as well as from newly elected state and local officials, are additional unknowns. However, as of early January, no proposed regulations that would significantly impact the truckload market appeared on the horizon.

Challenges to Truckload Digitization

Many shippers in the truckload space are interested in digitization, including electronic bills of lading, which would cut the time required to load trucks and reduce exposure to illness. However, given the thousands of carriers across the country, ranging from national enterprises to operations with a handful of trucks, this shift likely would occur incrementally.

Even as the volatility of 2020 abates, most carriers will continue to focus on contractual rather than spot pricing as a way of gaining further stability.

Shippers of Choice

In both the truckload and LTL markets, capacity constraints appear likely to continue.

Shippers who continually switch carriers to improve service may find their efforts fruitless.

Instead, by taking steps internally to remain shippers of choice and working with logistics providers like Transportation Insight to address challenges, you can mitigate rate increases and strengthen the service your receive and your access to capacity.

Download our First Quarter ChainLink 2021 for more forecasts and cost impact analysis from our freight capacity experts. Read this quarterly industry forecast for a multi-modal look at the trends that will affect your business in the months ahead.

Transportation Costs in 2021: Less-Than-Truckload

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at LTL Transportation in 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing Transportation Costs Through Capacity Constraints

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

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

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

How will NMFC Classification Changes Affect Your Cost?

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

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

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

NMFC Classifications

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

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

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

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

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

Updates to the NMFC

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

This quarter, the changes cover about 20 NMFC Groups:  

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

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

Working with Transportation Insight to Stay Abreast of Changes 

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

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

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

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

5 Red Flags for Retailers Racing Amazon

In an era where delivery choice and speed are becoming fundamental expectations for everyone, companies across most industries are rethinking how they receive, fulfill, and ship customer orders. Facing stiff competition from web-based suppliers, e-commerce providers, and even traditional companies, retailers, distributors, and manufacturers alike are challenged to enhance customer experience by offering variety in delivery options – without impacting the cost to the consumer.

Getting there isn’t easy.

Risks consistently stand in the way of retailers that want and need to deliver the best possible e-commerce experiences for their customers.

Driving Digital Growth and Retail Response

In its 2019 Retail Industry Outlook: Navigating disruption in retail report, Deloitte paints a picture of an industry where the consumer is unquestionably in the driver’s seat. “Consumers realize they can have it all. Today’s digital consumers are increasingly connected, have more access to information, and expect businesses to react to all their needs and wants instantly.”

Operating in an industry that’s in a state of constant disruption, retailers are managing through uncertain times and placing bets on what will separate the winners from the losers. “Those that can synchronize their investments to profitably empower the consumer will likely find themselves on the right side of the tipping point,” Deloitte concludes.

The good news is that the retail industry continues to thrive, with U.S. retail sales expected to rise between 3.8% and 4.4% to more than $3.8 trillion in 2019, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), which credits high consumer confidence, low unemployment, and rising wages for driving these numbers up. The 2019 holiday season should be particularly bright, with Coresight anticipating a 3.5%-4.0% year-over-year increase in U.S. retail sales during November and December.

These positive outlooks present a viable opportunity for retailers that learn how to harness e-commerce and use it to their advantage. For many retailers, getting a piece of that pie will require a good, hard look at the red flags that are slowing down their e-commerce service and putting them out of the running for today’s “want it now” consumer. 

Red Flags that Slow the E-Commerce Profit Race

Here are five risks that consistently stand in the way of retailers that want and need to deliver the best possible e-commerce experiences for their customers: 

Risk #1:  Web-based order interfaces. Success in e-commerce starts with a user-friendly interface that doesn’t frustrate customers or send them off to buy from another site. Put simply, if your online store’s ordering system is cumbersome and difficult to use, no one is going to use it unless they have to.  

Risk #2:  Shopping cart conversions. The retailer that isn’t boosting online checkout rates will quickly find itself struggling to survive in a sea of companies that have figured out the formula. Ignore the need to drive down abandonment rates and all of the advertising, marketing, and sales efforts in the world won’t help you compete against the likes of Amazon and other large e-tailers.   

Risk #3: Same-day order fulfillment. Retailers that want to convert digital consumers know that competing on price and customer experience just isn’t enough anymore; they have to also be able to compete on speed. Handled improperly, same-day delivery can be a logistical nightmare and major risk for retailers. It’s also a necessary evil for them, and something that they all have to be able to do for at least some of their customers.     

Risk #4:  Parcel, heavy home, and customized delivery platforms. When it comes to bulky goods that require extra muscle and/or assembly, retailers need to factor in three different scenarios: leaving the box in the entryway of a home or apartment; putting it in the room of choice; or doing both of these plus opening up the box, removing the packaging, and setting up the product(s). With delivery on demand becoming increasingly prevalent, giving the customer scheduling control and providing reliable service further enhances customer experience.

Risk #5:  Selecting the best, most economical transportation mode. Often retailers don’t have access to the data that allows them to utilize more economical mode selection. Instead, many focus solely on getting same-day and next-day shipments out the door as quickly as possible without worrying about whether or not those are the best and most economical decisions. This is a huge risk in an era where companies are being forced to go head-to-head with Amazon and Walmart, both of which offer same-day and one-day delivery to 72%-75% of the total U.S. population, respectively.   

The retailer that understands the transportation risks that exist in the race against Amazon are positioned to proactively mitigate them in today’s disruptive selling environment. These organizations will be best positioned to not only maintain market share, but to also prepare itself for what’s coming around the next corner. 

Ready to learn more about the risks facing retailers on the e-commerce front and how to solve them? Download Transportation Insight’s e-commerce guide, Managing the Risk of Racing Amazon.