LTL Freight Shipping Faces Pressure on Capacity and Rates

April 19, 2021

4 min read

RESOURCES // BLOG

Pendulum swings in less-than-truckload transportation are fairly common. When freight volumes are low and carrier capacity is high – as we experienced in 2020 – there is opportunity to seize gains in cost and service. As volumes spike and fill available capacity, LTL freight shipping rates swing up and service tends to dip. In 40 years in this business, I have never experienced a pendulum swing like this.
LTL freight shipping challenges have left many pallets dockside.

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.

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Chris Mendenhall

With the help of: Jacob Hawkins

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