Transportation Costs in 2021: Less-Than-Truckload

December 1, 2020

5 min read

RESOURCES // BLOG

Consumer demand shifts that accelerated during 2020 will have ongoing effects across the transportation marketplace, including continued capacity constraints in the less-than-truckload (LTL) market. Expect 2021 rate increases to reflect these pressures.
Transportation costs are volatile for less-than-truckload shipments as capacity constraints persist.

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.

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Chris Mendenhall

With the help of: Jacob Hawkins

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