Navigating Small Parcel Rates and Capacity ‘Perfect Storm’ in 2021

The first quarter of 2021 promises to bring much of the same volatility and uncertainty to the small parcel rates and capacity environment . With the holiday season behind us, many service providers are now fully entrenched in a worldwide vaccine distribution effort in a shipping environment that was already more expensive and capacity constrained than it was a year ago.

Here’s what all shippers should know as we move out of the chaos of 2020 and into a New Year that promises even more challenges – and opportunities! – for parcel shippers.

Small Parcel Capacity Lessons Learned from the Holiday Season

The 2020 holiday season was like no other. Record volumes of e-commerce orders  pushed major small parcel carriers to levy new fees while also capping volumes in order to balance their networks. Affecting ground, express, and postal service, very few shippers escaped the impact.

“As Americans increasingly shop online because of the coronavirus pandemic, private express carriers FedEx and UPS have cut off new deliveries for some retailers, sending massive volumes of packages ordered past deadlines to the Postal Service,” the Washington Post reported.

With capacity at a premium in the small package environment, shippers were left to their own devices when it came to getting their goods out the door and monitoring the cost and service impacts. We were called upon to help many companies as carriers took a brutally honest approach and let everyone know that they were buckling under the strain.

We’re really gridlocked all over the place ,” a Postal Service manager told the Washington Post. “It’s bad. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

Navigating the Perfect Small Parcel Storm

With carriers implementing caps in order to avoid being overwhelmed (or completely collapsing) and volume congestion riddling networks nationwide, shippers had to swallow a bitter pill: meeting consumer expectations for next-day or two-day service wasn’t happening. Shippers with contingency plans in place going into the holidays fared best as elections and vaccine distributions claimed an extraordinary amount of parcel and mail shipping capacity during the fourth quarter of 2020.

As with any crisis, there are always lessons to be learned. If 2020 taught shippers anything, it’s that it pays to listen to your small parcel carriers. Pay attention to their market moves and announcements, and then factor those insights into your overall transportation planning. We saw a similar uptick in awareness levels in 1997, when a 13-day UPS employee strike crippled the nation’s parcel network.

Fast-forward 23 years and COVID-19 had a similar impact – albeit more sweeping and longer in duration – on an industry that now includes multiple parcel carrier options. This time around, we saw that companies capable of distributing their shipping volume across FedEx, UPS, DHL, the USPS, and other providers (versus relying on just one) fared best during the 2020 holiday season.

Moving forward, smart shippers will continue to integrate flexible tactics into their supply chain planning, knowing that a “squeeze” on one end of that value chain will equate to a diversion at the other end of that sequence. This is where regional carriers and last-mile delivery services are helping to pick up the slack and, as a result, are now being taken more seriously than ever before. We expect this trend to continue in 2021 as companies shore up their transportation plans and work to avoid the challenges of 2020.

Small Parcel Network Visibility is the Key

Even with the vaccine distribution, COVID, and other outside forces impacting the small parcel landscape right now, we do expect a competitive, more rational, parcel shipping landscape to emerge later this year.

We could see a retreat in surcharges and other extra fees, but only when volume begins to wane and the environment starts to normalize. We also expect more competitors to enter the parcel marketplace and grab some of the opportunities that the larger carriers are overlooking right now. As this takes place, shippers should get some benefit from the heightened competition.

Regardless of the current small parcel shipping environment and the challenges that it’s inflicting on shippers and end customers, supply chain visibility continues to rise to the top as the ultimate combat tool. In an environment where next-day and two-day deliveries are the norm – and where these options are getting more expensive – the company that understands its total shipping costs is the one that will be best equipped to offset the “perfect storm” of capacity constraints, rising rates, and surcharges.

A critical tool for any market conditions, supply chain visibility includes all aspects of your transportation network—from the time the goods leave the loading dock until they reach their final destination, and all points in between. “The COVID-19 pandemic has moved supply chain and logistics technologies to the public eye like few times before,” Crunchbase states, “as shortages at grocery stores and the distribution of a possible vaccine highlight the importance of moving goods and essentials.”

End-to-end supply chain visibility also helps companies pinpoint areas of concern (i.e., is fulfillment causing the delay?), and address them quickly. It also gives shippers accurate insights into carrier performance and enables good decision-making on that front. Transportation Insight, for example, breaks down the data by geographic region and individual carrier to come up with the best possible options for shippers.

In other words, we’re not just throwing information over the fence to our customers; we take a highly consultative approach that helps companies shape successful supply chain strategies in any market conditions. As we move further into 2021, expect new parcel shipping opportunities and challenges to emerge. Those companies that align themselves with a knowledgeable, tech-enabled logistics partner will be best positioned to leverage these opportunities and circumvent the challenges.

Tap into our team’s insight to support your freight and parcel management practices. Download our Q1 ChainLink 2021 for multi-modal trend forecasts and cost impact analysis. Read it today  for supply chain strategy guidance, as well as the latest changes in truckload, less-than-load and small parcel transportation.

For more detail, listen to our SME Roundtable discuss transportation trends in our latest digital event.

Holiday Shipping 2020: Will Your Parcels be Picked Up and Delivered on Time?

Days after “Black Friday” UPS put holiday shipping restrictions on Nike and Gap and directed drivers to stop Cyber Monday pick-ups at other large retailers that are already exceeding parcel volume forecasts through booming online sales.  

In a year marked by a pandemic-driven shift in consumer buying habits that has driven consecutive quarters of record e-commerce growth, parcel networks have been at or near capacity for months. An unprecedented holiday peak has been on the radar, but as expected, early promotions and efforts to bring parcel volume forward could never be enough.

And in the midst of a monumental peak period, the parcel carriers continue to adjust their strategy to not only drive revenue growth in high demand e-commerce service areas, but also protect volume and achieve competitive advantage as Amazon’s delivery networks continue to evolve. 

Let’s look at some of the latest developments in the parcel shipping environment. They may affect your ability to delight customers this holiday season – and continue serving them well through 2021 and beyond.

E-Commerce Bloats Parcel Volume Beyond Capacity

Demand for the 2020 holiday peak shipping season is forecast to exceed 86 million packages a day – about 7 million packages outside current parcel network capacity. These estimates are validated by the National Retail Federation’s estimate that online shopping increased 44 percent during a five-day stretch that included Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 

Both UPS and FedEx prepared retail shippers for tight holiday shipping capacity, issuing advice for holiday shippers and encouraging clients to “shop earlier than ever with special offers or other incentives.” Yet, before December even dawned, both carriers were enforcing volume agreements and applying peak season charges and accessorial fees that create additional order fulfillment cost for shippers. 

In this environment it is critical that you have real-time understanding of your parcel shipping activity. While volume outside agreed-upon levels or historical averages may result in added cost during other parts of the year (as it did with COVID peak surcharges), packages exceeding a shipper’s determined space simply will not be served – at least until additional capacity becomes available.

Shipping Delays: Expect, Forewarn and Facilitate

Based on the recent trends observed, the average package delay rate during the 2020 holiday season may range between 14 percent and 18 percent. Consumers in densely populated cities can expect delays as high as 25 percent to 30 percent. 

Unless you create an expectation of delayed delivery, this can be a real problem for customer experience. Proactive communication with your customers about anticipated delays is one of the most important steps in preserving holiday shipping experience.  Use your website and email communications to help set expectations. 

That said, as consumers’ expectations on speed evolve, we are seeing an increased willingness to wait for a delivery, especially if it means free shipping. According to BoxPoll, more than half of consumers opting for free shipping (57 percent) considered five-day delivery to be “fast” – that’s up 8 percentage points compared to last year. One-third of respondents in the weekly survey said that seven-day delivery is “acceptable” at minimum.

Retailers are positioned to capitalize when they maintain awareness of shipping characteristics, alternative service models and, of course, their customers’ expectations. A “no-rush” option is a familiar part of the Amazon order process, and now other brands are following suit, even offering incentives for delayed or “slow service.” If a consumer considers five-day service “fast,” are you driving up cost by offering more service then they need?

FedEx Counters Amazon’s E-Commerce and Logistics Buildout

The FedEx acquisition of ShopRunner complements the actions that we have seen FedEx taking to remain relevant in e-commerce as Amazon continues to strengthen its logistics and fulfillment capabilities.  

The move reinforces the FedEx position as the anti-Amazon solution for companies seeking an Amazon alternative. Some of the carrier’s other recent activity following the same strategy includes:

  • Acquisition of GENCO to form the basis of Fulfillment by FedEx
  • Moving to a seven-day-a-week delivery schedule
  • Severing ties with Amazon for delivery to focus on other e-commerce volume
  • Pulling SmartPost deliveries into the Home Delivery network to bolster density and profitability.

With the global parcel market positioned to more than double by 2026, fueled by e-commerce growth and further accelerated by COVID-19, both FedEx and UPS will need to continue adding value to retailers’ unichannel solutions to keep volume when Amazon opens their delivery network to third party shipments. Amazon suspended its delivery service earlier this year due to the pandemic, but it is expected to reopen in the near future.

Of course, the parcel carriers are among an ever-growing contingent of organizations devising new strategies to compete with Amazon. Just in time for the holidays, WalMart is dropping the $35 minimum on free shipping for e-commerce purchases of electronics, toys and clothing made for participants in its WalMart+ membership program. The move – and the program – are both designed to compete with Amazon Prime.

Are You Positioned to Compete?

Can you quickly determine how your parcel shipping volume falls within your capacity agreement with your carriers? Do you know how quickly your customers are getting their orders – and whether you are meeting your delivery commitments? Can you determine which SKUs are making money – and which are not?

Ongoing awareness of evolving trends in the parcel environment – from service disruptions to capacity shortages – is integral to your ability to pivot your small package shipping strategy. 

Understanding how those trends affect your transportation cost and service to end customers requires expert analysis and actionable intelligence. The latest enhancements to our technology platform puts the power of that information at your fingertips with best-in-class visualization of data gathered across your entire supply chain.

Schedule a demonstration today to see how our clients are able to identify business trends, understand the impact of cost and service on working capital, and recognize ongoing performance improvement opportunities.

Fulfillment Strategies: Is Your 2021 E-Commerce Plan in Place?

Fulfillment Strategies: Is Your 2021 E-Commerce Plan in Place?

This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the big uptick in e-commerce that’s occurring in 2020, and that will likely continue well into 2021. Already increasing year-over-year, U.S. e-commerce sales were up 43% in September 2020, having grown by 42% the prior month. This growth impacted manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, many of which were unprepared for the onslaught. 

If you spent most of 2020 just trying to get through the pandemic, it’s time to dust off your supply chain, logistics and transportation plans and make sure your fulfillment strategies align with your 2021 e-commerce goals.

Changing Business Models 

As a whole, the pandemic was a wakeup call for these companies that were forced to question some of their fundamental assumptions. 2021 could bring an entirely new set of supply chain, logistics, and transportation challenges with it. 

“As many executives heave a sigh of relief, they are also preparing for a dramatically different environment in 2021,” Industry Week points out. 

“Recent economic challenges have forced manufacturers to change their business models, seemingly overnight, to stay competitive and prepare for not just recovery, but unprecedented growth,” it continues. “However, it may be difficult for manufacturers to keep up with both a snap-back in demand and a huge appetite from customers for innovative products and solutions.”

Navigating the New Fulfillment Normal

Under normal circumstances, companies can add labor and shifts to make up for throughput problems in their warehouses and DCs. With social distancing guidelines in place and the need to keep employees healthy a huge issue for companies right now, simply throwing labor at the problem doesn’t work anymore. 

These realities directly impact customer service which, in turn, affects margins and revenues. When customers feel like they’re being kept in the dark or that they’re not in control of the ordering and shipping process, they’ll take their business elsewhere. 

Here are six more strategies that all companies should include in their 2021 plans: 

  • Get your parcel shipping act together. In a world where nearly all customers expect their goods in three days or less, and where 30 percent of them expect them next day, you can’t reduce shipping costs at your customers’ expense. With this emphasis on delivery expectations, companies have to create parcel strategies that acknowledge the fact that shipping is the highest cost component of any e-commerce order.   
  • Watch your accessorials and peak surcharges. With the parcel carriers continuing to roll out increasingly-complex pricing strategies and inflating rates due to the lack of competition, shippers also have to keep a close eye on accessorials and peak surcharges at the package level. Understand how it’s impacting your costs and how to adjust and adapt moving forward into 2021. If SKU-level profitability is an important KPI, for example, then add that to list of metrics to measure. 
  • Consider a multi-carrier solution. There’s a lot of good value to be had by working with regional carriers and freight consolidators. Varying your approach also helps support customers’ delivery expectations. Amazon, for example, has worked hard to ensure high levels of visibility that starts when an order is placed and that doesn’t end until the package is on the buyer’s doorstep. With more of these customers having same-day and next-day delivery expectations, the multi-carrier approach can help support your overall fulfillment strategy and even make it more affordable. 

  • Rethink your fulfillment approach. To meet your customers’ fulfillment needs, you can either offer a higher shipper service level or you can change how your product is fulfilled and positioned (i.e., either with a bicoastal or multiple fulfillment level location plan). Whether you’re fulfilling it yourself, using a third-party logistics provider (3PL), or a hybrid approach, the key is to look to 2021 and beyond when setting up these networks. 
  • Use advanced technology tools. To get a head start on 2021, companies can tap into the tools that help automate, personalize, and engage virtual transactions, and that fuel their e-fulfillment engines. Cart integration, for example, automatically answers buyer questions like: How much is it going to cost? What are my shipping options? And, is there an opportunity for me to pick it up in-store? Through that integration and automation, the customer gets the choice and the control that they’re looking for today.
  • Focus on more than just the sales process. Companies should also consider post-purchase experience and post-purchase engagement tools, both of which automate the customer buying journey. These data-centric tools also lighten the workload for your customer service team. Finally, having shipping analytics right down to the individual order level puts the power of business intelligence (BI) into the shipper’s hands, and allows it to make good decisions based on accurate, relevant information (versus just guesswork).  

While it’s easy to get mired in the complications of 2020 right now, you’ll be much better prepared if you break the mold and start planning for the future today. That way, you’ll be in the right position and ready to pivot—in whichever direction is necessary—when 2021 comes. 

2021 Parcel Rates: 3 Areas for Attention

The average rate increase for primary services provided by UPS and FedEx mirrors that same familiar 4.9 percent increase that we have seen for many years. 

And just as we have seen for many years, the 2021 parcel rates increase announcements are just a visible layer in the carriers’ rate and service pricing structures. With multiple layers, the complex pricing and surcharge practices of UPS and FedEx can make it difficult to determine the true cost for your small package shipments. 

Beyond the average increase on standard services, it is also important to recognize that surcharges, accessorials, new fees and tweaks to the carriers’ terms and conditions could require you to budget a 2021 cost increase closer to 8.5 percent. Capacity pressures created by exponential e-commerce growth during the pandemic and uncertainty about mid-year or peak surcharges for 2021 creates an environment of unknowns.

You need to understand how your shipment characteristics align with carrier networks. If you are a large shipper with a great contract, be prepared to defend that as tight capacity drives renegotiation motives for UPS and FedEx. Your parcel partner can be a real asset during this time if they have the ability to analyze your historic performance and determine areas for future cost savings that do not jeopardize performance. 

Let’s explore three aspects of this year’s parcel rate increase that could drive new costs in your transportation budget. 

  • Expanded ZIP Codes for Delivery Area Surcharge 

More ZIP codes than ever before will be eligible for Delivery Area Surcharges (DAS) for both UPS and FedEx. Both carriers adjust the applicable ZIP codes every year, but the past two years have reflected significant changes. In 2021, these charges will apply to almost 38 percent of the United States.

The increase for UPS DAS areas will apply to almost 12.3 million people, while the FedEx changes will affect about 11 million people. Ultimately, that means you are facing an additional surcharge for more of your customers. 

This is a difficult adjustment to calculate on your own, but when that much of your customer-base is affected by new costs, deep analysis is required to determine how these changes will impact your budget in 2021.

We talked more about the changes around DAS during our recent parcel rates webinar. Watch the replay for more insight on the how and the why behind this move by the carriers. 

  • Additional Handling Charges for Large Parcels and More to Come

    If your packages measure over 105 inches in length and girth combined, you will be charged an Additional Handling Fee of $16. This dimension change on the fee targets packages that barely miss the Oversize criteria of 130 inches (L and W combined). It applies to packages that take up a lot of space on conveyor belts, but do not get charged high dimensional weight.  

    Parcel carriers are becoming increasingly selective about the packages that move through their automated networks. Large packages, in certain instances, can cause significant problems in an automated facility. Moving them often requires more work from human resources, a costly and time-consuming element. 

    Beyond this $16 charge, UPS is also implementing a new structure for additional handling and large package rates that will differ by zone. Those rates will be announced at a later date, April 11, 2021 for non-hundred-weight packages and July 11, 2021 for hundredweight packages. 

    For heavy retail customers that are not clothing-oriented, this change could create a significant impact. We work with clients to identify specific impacts and solutions to mitigate the added cost.
  • Lightweight 2021 Parcel Rates Face Steepest Increases

    It is important to understand that when the carriers have a rate increase, it is not a universal rate increase across all weights and zones. The average rate increase is 4.9 percent. The level of rate increase for your volume depends on your shipping characteristics. For many shippers a larger percentage of their packages qualify for minimum charges, especially larger shippers with more aggressive pricing. 

    This year, parcel shippers charged at the zone 2, 1-pound minimum will face a steeper increase – about 6.4 percent – than their counterparts in other weight and zone combinations. Likewise, UPS and FedEx rates match between 1 and 15 pounds, and for these lightweight shipments the increases are generally higher than those for heavier packages. 

This strategy of larger increases on lightweight packages is an abrupt change for UPS and FedEx. Two factors likely affect the decision:

  • Competition from Priority Mail: Last year (before COVID-19), FedEx and UPS were both concerned with competition from Priority Mail. Lightweight Priority Mail rates are significantly lower than UPS and FedEx Ground rates, especially to residential addresses. Heading into 2021 with the parcel industry at capacity, there is less concern on competitiveness and more emphasis on profitability.’
  • Profitability: Lightweight packages are typically less profitable for small package carriers than heavier weight packages. Carriers are likely to continue to increase lightweight packages at higher levels as long as there are capacity constraints. Regional carriers can offer an efficient alternative in some of your lightweight shipping scenarios. In light of capacity challenges and other disruptions during 2020, many of these operations have filled a niche and grown. These carriers can sometimes be easier to implement, and they don’t often bring the surcharges the national carriers apply.

    During our Parcel Rates Roundtable we share tips for leveraging regional carriers as part of your parcel program. Watch the webinar to make sure that type of move does not drive up cost with your national carrier due to your tier commitments.

Parcel Bills: Do Not Pay Late

Another area for attention: when its GRI takes effect Jan. 4, 2021, FedEx will begin applying a 6 percent late payment fee. UPS implemented this fee in 2004, and this gives FedEx customers cause to pay close attention to the payment terms in their contracts. 

Not paying your bills on time now becomes a more financially impactful decision, and these fees can add because they apply at the invoice level.

Master Your Parcel Plan, Minimize Rate Impact. 

Do you have your finger on the pulse of your parcel program so you can understand the true cost impact of the 2021 annual General Rate Increase across your end-to-end supply chain?

Questions to consider:

  • How do your contract terms and conditions address volume caps?
  • How will volume caps affect your actual rate increase, surcharges and other fees?
  • How does your customer base change now that more than 11 million people have been added to the DAS delivery charge?
  • How do you budget for these changes?

Open our Parcel Rate Outlook 2021 for our expert support in preparing a plan that carefully considers these questions – and all changes across the parcel environment. Leveraging deep parcel expertise, tools and technology, we’re able to provide rate impact analysis specific to your personal needs and design a business solution that controls cost and protects experience.

Get our Parcel Rate Outlook 2021 today and make sure your 2021 transportation budget considers the nuances lurking in the layers below the 4.9 percent average rate increase.

Q4 Forecast: Parcel Rates and Cost Impact

Not long ago parcel carriers were transporting 20-25 percent of their deliveries to residential addresses. By 2019, that number increased to about 50 percent. This year, 70 percent of all parcel carrier movements involve a residential address. The shift is largely driven by a consumer who is shopping from home either by choice, necessity or both. 

According to the Department of Commerce, U.S. retail e-commerce sales for the second quarter of 2020 were $211.5 billion, an increase of 31.8 percent over the first quarter of the year. During the second quarter of 2019, e-commerce sales increased just 12 percent over the same period in 2018. 

These are some telling numbers, and they paint a picture of a shifting consumer purchasing environment that’s pulling the major parcel carriers right along with it. For example, UPS saw its residential delivery volume increase 65 percent during the second quarter. This is just one of several carriers being asked to absorb and handle volume increases unlike anything their networks have ever experienced.

Here’s what shippers can expect on the parcel shipping front as 2020 winds down and the holiday season kicks into full speed.

2021 Parcel Rates: FedEx

FedEx Express (Domestic, U.S. Export and U.S. Import), FedEx Ground, and FedEx Home Delivery shipping rates will increase by an average of 4.9 percent. FedEx has increased these rates 4.9 percent every year since 2007. FedEx Freight will increase rates by an average of 5.9 percent. 

These are a sampling of the changes becoming effective Jan. 4, 2021:

  • Institute a 6 percent late fee to U.S. FedEx Express and FedEx Ground customers who don’t pay their invoice within their agreed upon payment terms. UPS implemented this fee in 2003.
  • New $16 Additional Handling Fee for packages where dimensions are greater than 105 inches in combined length plus girth. 
  • Additional handling charge for weight increased 6.25 percent to $25.50.
  • Additional handling charge for packaging increase 7.7 percent to $14.
  • DAS for Home Delivery is 7.5 percent from $4 to $4.30.
  • Oversize charge for Home Delivery has increased 8.3 percent from $120 to $130.
  • Residential Delivery charge for Home Delivery charge increased 8.75 percent from $4 to $4.35.
  • The ground minimum package charge (zone 2, 1 pound list rate) has increased by 6.44 percent to $8.76.
  • 2Day and Express Saver (3 day) shipments will take larger increases.
  • Longer zones have larger increases than shorter zones for Express services.
  • Surcharges have increased by more than the announced 4.9 percent for the ones most commonly applied.

Even though the GRI is 4.9 percent your true rate increase will be somewhere between 4.9 percent and 8 percent depending on usage of these additional services. This is the type of analysis Transportation Insight provides to our clients. Every year a GRI report is generated for our clients to aid in understanding the impact these rates will have on their transportation spend.

When Peak Season Lasts All Year

Carriers typically experience peak season about six weeks a year. Because of COVID-19 carriers have been running at peak season pace for several months straight. There’s never been this level of capacity utilization in the small package network, and it’s clear that carriers weren’t ready for it. As a result, the massive increase created management difficulties for the carriers which, in turn, implemented COVID-19 surcharges that create new cost management challenges for shippers

These charges went into effect in the U.S. during the first quarter of the year, with UPS and FedEx creating a peak season operating plan for spring and summer (to handle the demand of home delivery while simultaneously experiencing the collapse of their commercial delivery volume). This created major problems: commercial deliveries are traditionally carriers’ most profitable and have been reduced to a fraction of their “normal” levels. 

Tracking the cost impact of these surcharges isn’t always straightforward. UPS created a $0.30 charge for residential and SurePost packages while also raising by $31.45 a surcharge on difficult-to-handle parcels (e.g., extra-large boxes). FedEx imposed its own surcharges on large shippers and added a $0.30 charge for express and ground residential deliveries, and a $0.40 addition for SmartPost deliveries.  

Navigating the New Gauntlet

With COVID still impacting the shipping environment, carriers rolled out holiday peak season surcharges. For 2020, these charges will be broad-based and targeted at the shippers that more significantly impact the parcel carriers’ networks. 

Charges for UPS will range from $1, $2, and $3 for ground residential and SurePost packages. These charges will begin Nov. 15 and continue through Jan. 16, 2021. UPS is also tacking on an additional handling charge of $5 per package, a large package surcharge of $50, and an over-max-limit of $250. These charges will be in effect through Jan. 16. 

FedEx began its holiday peak season surcharges of $4.90 on Oct. 5 for packages needing additional handling. Oversized package incur a $52.50 surcharge and unauthorized packages cost an additional $350. These rates will be in effect until Jan. 17. In addition, FedEx’s residential ground packages incur surcharges capped at $4 per package, while residential express shipment surcharges are $5. The latter charges are both based on specific formulas. 

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will implement its own peak season surcharges beginning Oct. 18 and running through Dec. 27. The fees still need to receive regulatory approval, but we expect them to be passed. The USPS fees will be applied per package and will pertain to all commercial shippers.  

Maintaining Profitability

For the first time, we’re also seeing small package regional carriers implementing surcharges. Because these fees are based on formulas and difficult to compute, planning for, managing, reporting and auditing the surcharges is difficult. Unfortunately, the combination of COVID-19 and an e-commerce boom overturned the parcel industry’s apple cart, and the change will be forever felt as parcel shippers navigate this new gauntlet.

For most companies, speed is the most important supply chain deliverable. They’re looking to move volume to the end consumer to achieve speed at an acceptable price point. We’re also seeing many companies: 

  • Exploring opportunities for faster growth or service into specific markets.
  • Going direct to consumers
  • Pivoting to maintain Amazon Prime designations by complying with requirements taking effect in February.

Managing these complexities on your own has become a major headache for parcel shippers – especially when logistics management isn’t your core business. Not prepared to make long-term commitments in technology, infrastructure, and employees, more companies are turning to third-party logistics providers (3PLs) to move quickly and affordably in this customer-centric business world. 

Third-party fulfillment allows companies to ramp up quickly to meet demand. It also creates a more elastic fulfillment environment that can be scaled up or down, depending on the volume of freight that’s moving through the operation. A 3PL will also help you lay out a master plan in advance, and then adjust accordingly as rate hikes, surcharges, and other variables come into play.   

In light of the rising costs of parcel shipping—and the myriad surcharges that went into effect in 2020—the biggest questions that shippers are asking themselves right now are: Where should I place my inventory? And, what SKUs should I be stocking in order to meet customer demand?  The companies that find the right balance between these two points will then be the ones that maintain profitability through this uncertainty…and beyond. 

Don’t Let Peak Surcharges Kill Your E-Commerce Profit

Shippers often don’t expect accessorial changes and peak season surcharges that carriers introduce at different times throughout the year. In most cases, seasonal demand swings and business peaks drive these cost changes. 

This year a global pandemic prompted peak season surcharges. Because these new costs coincided with skyrocketing demand for online shopping, many shippers lacked the visibility required to protect e-commerce profit on every shipment.

An Aug. 7 communication from UPS confirmed that more peak surcharges are coming for the holiday season. 

Here are three ways to keep these surcharges from killing your company’s profitability. They’ll become increasingly important as peak season surcharges could become a new year-round norm.

  1. Carefully Audit Every Carrier Invoice
    Go beyond examining the invoice number and dollar amount. Taking the position, “Okay, last week I shipped $75,000 worth of merchandise. That sounds about right,” isn’t a deep enough dive into your parcel invoices. 

    This high-level analysis doesn’t give you the insights you need to pivot effectively when surcharges are imposed. Get down to the actual package and charge level. This is one of the most important practices in managing peak season surcharges and protecting e-commerce profit.
  2. Share the Cost – Pass It or Promote It
    Don’t assume that these surcharges have to get tacked onto your “costs of doing business.”

    As long as it doesn’t affect your competitive position, pass the surcharge costs along to your customers. By strategically aligning products with marketing promotions, you can also increase order value, optimize shipment density and, ultimately, mitigate bottom-line impact of peak-season costs.

    If you do have to absorb the additional cost, be sure to factor that into the sale, versus waiting for your parcel carrier’s invoice to arrive and taking it right out of your profit for a specific order.   

  1. Team-up with E-Commerce Partners 
    Burdened by carrier surcharges and operating in a challenging business environment, shippers may be tempted to only deal with carriers when they have a gripe, a fee that needs to be refunded, or a surcharge that doesn’t apply (but was charged anyway). 

    These situations generally reach a positive resolution when shippers have win-win relationships with their carriers. This has been a practice for years in the truckload/less-than-truckload sector, where being a “shipper of choice” has become a popular stance for companies that are assessing their total costs of transportation.   

    The same applies in the parcel space, where we rely on accurate, up-to-date, supporting data when working with carriers on behalf of our customers (versus just managing issues in a one-off manner). 

    By serving as a link between shippers and carriers (who would otherwise be forced to work with thousands of different customers on an individual level), we are an extension of your parcel team. 

Master Your Parcel Program

To help you control costs in an ongoing peak season surcharge environment, we created “Manage the Surge: Avoid Surcharge Shocks, Power Performance.” It explores the how and why behind parcel carriers’ cost-recovery tactics. Read it today for the strategies you need to power a parcel program response that offsets these costs and protects your e-commerce profit.

Carrier Surcharges: What’s the Real Impact?

Now we know more peak surcharges are on the way for the traditional holiday season. Between the major carriers, the UPS plan is quite a bit different than the FedEx strategy for applying new costs.

FedEx has set peak surcharges to begin as they plan to pull back the COVID surcharges, in essence, keeping the charges in place through the Christmas season. The biggest difference between the FedEx and the UPS charges is the SmartPost charge. It appears all SmartPost customers will have the charge, while the UPS and Home Delivery surcharges will be used for larger customers.

In particular, it appears the FedEx SmartPost charge looks to jump 100% for one week in December and then drop back to $1 the remainder of the season. This type of complexity between carriers and service impacts makes it difficult to manage cost.

Unlike global changes that impact all shippers (i.e., the modification in dimensional weight definitions introduced in 2015 and again in 2018), surcharges affect companies differently.

For example: 

  • An e-commerce apparel company sending most of its orders to residential addresses likely felt the brunt of COVID-related surcharges. 
  • A large B2B company delivering primarily to commercial addresses, on the other hand, was likely shielded from the brunt of these impacts, unless they were moving larger packages. 

The good news is that even though individual companies can’t control parcel carriers’ surcharges, they can minimize the budgetary impact with accurate shipping data, experienced logistics partners, and quick responses to carrier announcements.

What are Carrier Surcharges Costing You?

One 30-cent surcharge on a residential parcel shipment may seem innocuous. Multiply that fee across thousands of parcel shipments, and it’s clear just how burdensome this unexpected fee can be to a company’s bottom line. 

Furthermore, spend management becomes more complicated when carrier surcharges are based on average volume benchmarks, especially when they become retroactive to all shipments once thresholds are crossed.

Consider this: 

If a retailer averages 200,000 weekly packages shipped through UPS Ground Residential or SurePost in February, what’s the cost impact of a 30-cent surcharge when that volume increases to 250,000 weekly packages?

*After average threshold is exceeded, surcharge applies to all packages shipped.

  • If a distributor averages 50,000 weekly packages shipped residential through FedEx Ground, what’s the cost impact of a 30-cent surcharge when that weekly volume increases by 75,000 packages?

*FedEx surcharge volume threshold was higher at 40,000, and included the stipulation that weekly volume had to be 120% higher than the February weekly average.

Factor in any additional fees for oversized packages, and a shipper operating on tight margins can quickly find itself losing money on every order. And without a plan for dealing with unexpected surcharges, SKU profitability moves out of reach quickly. 

Adding to the complexity, carriers can make changes in how or when surcharges are applied – at any time. We saw this with the reduction in dimensions and weight for when carriers applied additional handling surcharges.

Although not a specifically a surcharge, shippers saw a significant change with the migration of the DIM factor from 194 to 139, which increases the billable weight for many packages.

Manage Carrier Surcharges to Avoid Budget Shock

Both the predictable and unexpected carrier surcharges are likely here to stay.

As you plan your transportation spend for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, be sure to factor in the reality of carrier surcharges. It doesn’t take a global pandemic to create peak season pressure on carriers’ profitability and spur added fees on your parcel shipments. 

While none of us has a crystal ball — nor can we control the steps carriers take to shore up their own operations during peaks and difficult periods — preparing in advance, understanding the impetus behind the charges, and taking the proactive steps can improve your ability to control costs in the current and future parcel freight environments.

To help you improve your ability to plan for and respond to carrier surcharges, we created “Manage the Surge: Avoid Surcharge Shocks, Power Performance.” It explores the how and why behind parcel carriers’ cost-recovery tactics. Read it today for the strategies you need to power a parcel program response that offsets these costs and protects your profit.

Peak Season Surcharges: 4 Things to Know

Less predictable, peak surcharges are creating additional complexity for parcel pricing, especially as UPS announces its holiday peak season surcharges. These new charges come in addition to similar costs in place the past few months.

For example, a parcel carrier may announce a general rate increase of 4.9%, but this is an average taken across all services, weight breaks, and zones. In reality, many rate increases are above 6% when applied to a shipper’s actual volume. 

Predictable by nature, these annual increases are usually baked into the “cost of doing business” for shippers, many of which understand that the GRI impact on their transportation rates is at least an increase of about 5% annually. 

Now, carriers are introducing accessorial surcharges at different times throughout the year in response to seasonal demand swings and business peaks. These unexpected peak season surcharges can be difficult to manage, especially during a global pandemic when dynamic shifts are occurring across the marketplace. 

Here are four things all shippers should know about peak season surcharges in 2020.

  1. Peak Season Surcharges Becoming Routine It pays to stay on top of these variations and respond accordingly. Companies that take proactive measures to offset pending surcharges are often best positioned to maintain profitability, protect their bottom lines, and keep their customers happy (and coming back for more).

    Alongside existing peak surcharges implemented earlier in 2020, UPS announced it will increase surcharges for the holiday season. Starting Nov. 15, surcharges on Ground, SurePost and domestic Air services will increase to between $1 and $4 per package, depending on the shippers’ parcel volume. At a minimum, that triples the increases implemented May 31. 
  2. Parcel Carriers Felt the COVID-19 Impact During the traditional holiday season, UPS and FedEx often start hiring up to six months ahead of time. They also require larger shippers to provide volume estimates to support capacity planning. Staffed and trained, the carriers position everyone for success during the busiest time of the year. 

    These proactive moves weren’t possible during the global pandemic, and that’s precisely why the surcharges surfaced quickly in 2020.
  3. Residential Deliveries Bear the Brunt of COVID Surcharges Surcharges surfaced quickly in 2020, with higher costs on residential deliveries and large package shipments to homes and businesses quickly consuming the carriers’ margins. In response, UPS and FedEx implemented peak surcharges for U.S. domestic residential shipments and large/oversize packages due to the increased demand. UPS implemented the new charges on May 31, and FedEx quickly followed on June 8. 

    Not all shippers were caught in this particular surcharge web. Some charges solely affected large shippers with significant increases in residential deliveries compared to their average pre-pandemic weekly volume from Feb. 2 and Feb. 29, 2020.
  4. Advance Peak Season Surcharge Planning Isn’t Easy Budget planning for surcharges isn’t easy in an environment where these increases can arise unexpectedly. No one was prepared for the massive impacts of COVID-19, for example, so shippers had little (or no) time to prepare in advance for the surcharges. 

    The good news is that even though individual companies can’t control parcel carriers’ surcharges, they can minimize the budgetary impact with accurate shipping data, experienced logistics partners, and quick responses to carrier announcements. 

Avoid Peak Season Surcharge Shock

As you plan your transportation spend for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, be sure to factor in the reality of “unexpected” carrier surcharges. It doesn’t take a global pandemic to create peak season pressure on carriers’ profitability and spur added fees on your parcel shipments. At the same time, in the wake of COVID-19, expect significant changes in the last-mile delivery environment, especially in terms of pricing complexity.

Individually, a 30-cent surcharge on a residential parcel shipment may seem innocuous. Multiply that fee across thousands of packages, and it’s clear just how burdensome this unexpected fee can be to a company’s bottom line. 

Remember the proverb: forewarned is forearmed. Prior knowledge of a potential issue will always give you a tactical advantage.

To help you avoid surcharge surprises, we created “Manage the Surge: Avoid Surcharge Shocks, Power Performance.” It explores the how and why behind parcel carriers’ cost-recovery tactics. Read it today for the strategies you need to power a parcel program response that offsets these costs and protects your profit.