International Shipping Rates Challenge: New Year, Same Capacity Challenges

January 14, 2021

5 min read

RESOURCES // BLOG

Consumers’ insatiable demand for e-commerce purchases, as well as rapidly deployed vaccine distribution will continue to create ripples across all transportation modes in the first half of 2021 and cause continued international shipping rates challenges.

In the international shipping marketplace, that translates to equipment availability issues, ongoing capacity pressure and motivation for the major shipping alliances to maintain record-high rates.

Although the Chinese New Year February 11-26 offers promise of a breather for vessel, port and intermodal operations, events of 2020 created enough congestion and imbalance that volatility will continue to affect supply chains reliant on international transportation.

Let’s explore factors that will affect price, capacity and service in the first half of 2021 and continue to contribute to international shipping rates challenges.

No International Shipping Relief in Sight

Signs of a unique year are already emerging. Capacity demands are at levels unlike we’ve ever experienced for this season. Bookings are at capacity through January and into February.

As a result, international shipping rates are not going down any time soon. Since the 3 major shipping alliances control about 85 percent of international shipping capacity, operators leverage their power more than in the past. A General Rate Increase has not been announced since September, but we are not seeing the typical drop in costs that normally accompanies a loosening of capacity that follows peak season. That will keep rates elevated.

Additional loaders are being deployed to keep up with demand. Some of those come online to send empty containers back to Asia. There, ports wait for a hundreds of thousands of containers to move slowly back into the flow from the congested U.S. West Coast.

Optimism is high that the Chinese New Year will afford two weeks of breathing room for the international shipping industry to catch up. Unfortunately, 16 days will not likely be enough time to alleviate several months’ worth of challenges that continue to affect services and cost across your end-to-end network.

Ripples Across Transportation Spend Clogs International and Domestic Supply Chain

The ripple of demand, capacity and equipment availability is felt across all transportation modes. Congestion on the rail stalls movement of freight. Full inbound containers detained by the rail are being stored off-site, requiring additional moves. When there is disruption to intermodal, expect it to occur across truckload and LTL and pressure cost management and service times as a result.

In this environment, global distribution of COVID-19 vaccine creates additional demand spikes, especially for the Air Freight mode that will fill a key role in the transportation of temperature sensitive materials. Likewise, expect to see impact across other domestic modes as medical supplies are prioritized, and, in the process, pushing transportation pricing up and capacity down.

On the trade compliance front, a new administration in Washington, D.C., has promised to bring regulation changes that will likely develop more slowly. Efforts to rollback tariffs, like China 301, get a lot of attention, and while the policy changes of a new president may not move quickly, expect some ripple in the complex rules for importing and exporting goods into the United States.

Consumer Behaviors Drive “Forever Peak” with Overseas Shipping

Problems challenging the international supply chain emanate from ongoing shifts in consumer behavior. E-commerce continues to fill buying voids left open by vacations and visits to the mall. Disposable income drives the online purchase of goods and the volume of consumable goods moving through transportation networks is creating an extended peak season across all modes.

Buyers are quickly becoming accustomed to the immediate purchase satisfaction that comes from an online order, and that is not ever going to revert. Raw material, component and finished good sourcing strategies as well as inventory management practices become increasingly complicated when buyers know they can take their cart elsewhere if you do not have the desired quantity available to fill their online order.

To make sure you protect that experience and secure every sale, it is critical to understand how every piece of the end-to-end supply chain puzzle – from foreign production site and overseas shipping, to trade compliance, domestic transportation and last mile delivery – fits together into a total landed cost of goods.

An expert partner can help you assemble the big picture perspective so you can control your international and domestic spend and turn your focus toward achieving strategic goals for your business.

For more insight on multi-modal transportation trends that will affect your cost and service in 2021, download our Q1 Industry Forecast. It features a look at things to come for shippers relying on Truckload, LTL and Parcel transportation, as well as our international transportation forecasts.

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Rick Brumett

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