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. 

Last Days to Ship? 7 Tips to Meet Holiday Deadlines

According to MarketWatch, Deloitte is forecasting a 1% to 1.5% year-over-year sales increase for the upcoming holiday season, during which time total retail sales will be about $1.15 billion (between November 2020 and January 2021). Meeting holiday shipping deadlines will be more important than ever.

“E-commerce sales, which have been strong throughout the coronavirus pandemic, are expected to climb 25% to 35%, reaching $182 billion and $196 billion,” Deloitte predicts. “Regardless of the scenario, however, consumers’ focus on health, financial concerns, and safety will result in a shift in the way they spend their holiday budget.”  

Here are seven tips for making sure your holiday packages get to their destinations on time.

7 Tips for Holiday Delivery Success 

The new realities of the current shipping environment have created ongoing service delays and disruptions, both of which have compounded into an overall capacity crunch for small parcel carriers. Working through this issue will require forward-thinking companies to adjust accordingly.

For example, shippers will need to be more creative and flexible to cope with the combination of COVID and the normal peak season. FedEx, UPS, and other carriers are hiring a lot more workers for the season, but we still expect to see some capacity issues. With the uncertainty, it will be more important than ever to inform customers when to expect shipments and be extremely transparent. 

Here are seven tips that will help you get your packages to their destinations on time: 

  1. Know the cutoff dates. FedEx’s last days to ship calendar is online here and UPS publishes its holiday deadlines here. The USPS plans to release its cutoff dates for holiday shipping sometime in October. Be sure to factor in these last days to ship dates when planning your holiday shipments. 
  2. Talk to your carriers. Proactively communicate with carriers regarding any expected increase in volume and any additional equipment requirements (e.g., feeders or bulk-type pickups). This will help your carriers plan ahead and provide some assurance that there will be capacity to accommodate your volume spikes (or, allow you to make alternative arrangements). 
  3. Next, talk to your customers. Companies should proactively communicate anticipated delays and properly set customer’s expectations on their websites and in any email communications. This could be as simple as featuring the holiday cutoff shipment dates prominently on the first page of your website. 
  4. Know the limits. Shippers should clearly understand any potential volume limits or caps that may be put in place by the carriers. Because these constraints can impact your ability to deliver on time, be sure to discuss them with your carrier. 
  5. Explore your options. Shippers should also understand their carrier options and negotiate favorable agreement terms to properly leverage all national, regional, and postal carriers. Having a “Plan B” in place is always a good idea during the busiest times of the year. 

  1. Start your product promos early. Don’t wait until the last minute to kick off your holiday promotions. Starting early will help you pull volume forward to avoid peak shipping periods and allow time for expected delays. 
  2. Factor in holiday business schedules. For example, USPS is closed for all of the major federal holidays. With delivery times varying between its services, knowing the cutoff dates and hours of operation are both important. 

Maintaining Transparency  

Reflecting on how parcel carriers performed for the 2019-20 holiday shipping season, UPS’ SurePost and FedEx’s SmartPost both assured 100% delivery for holiday orders that were shipped on or before December 14 or 9 (respectively). However, we also saw that as the cutoff date approached, those commitments slipped. This is something to keep in mind as you lay out your plans for the 2020-21 season. 

Using the tips outlined in this article, you can strike a nice balance between growing your company’s holiday sales while also letting customers know that there is a risk of passing the carrier’s “suggested date” for accepting pickup for a Christmas delivery. Through full transparency and good information, you can effectively manage customer expectations while also syncing with the carriers that will deliver the goods to their doorsteps.  

Peak Season Performance Requires Visibility

To make sure holiday shippers are aware of the latest trends affecting their transportation cost management, we convened a roundtable of our parcel experts. Watch or listen to our webinar “Peak Season: Are You Ready?” to hear Todd Benge, Robyn Meyer, Toni Caputo, Bernie Reeb and myself address the unprecedented challenges emerging his year.

This digital event shares strategies to help you protect profit and enhance customer experience. Watch it today to make sure you are getting charged correctly and manage the capacity risks that threaten to derail your performance.