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 small parcel rates chaos of 2020 and into a New Year that promises even more challenges – and opportunities!

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. 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 Rates: 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.

Small Parcel Rate Guide - Insight Fusion

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 small parcel rates and other 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 small parcel rates and other transportation modes.

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

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.

Why Audit Parcel Service Now? Here’s 4 Reasons

If you don’t think the delivery experience is directly related to customer retention, think again. According to Dimensional Research, of customers who report a bad experience, almost all of them (97 percent) changed their future buying decisions. Further, 58 percent stopped buying from the company, more than half went to a different company for the product or service, and 52 percent told others not to buy the product or service. 

Maybe the shipment was late, perhaps it was damaged, maybe it was delivered to the wrong house, or perhaps the shipping label was wrong in the first place. In the small package shipping environment, it is hard to have awareness of the problem without parcel audit validating the service received.

Whatever caused the problem, the bottom line is that this and other issues could be making you lose customers right at a time when no company can afford to have this happen. Between the global pandemic, the economic recession, and the business volatility occurring in most industries, organizations need to be at the top of their games when it comes to customer service. 

$1.50 Per Package Adds Up Fast

No matter how much customers love your product, many won’t come back if the experience is not good. This should be reason enough to conduct frequent service audits. 

There are also other reasons, some of which do not relate to the customer experience. For example, Transportation Insight recently worked with a shipper that noticed a significant change in its per-package shipping costs. After a service audit, it realized that its cost-per-package had increased by about $1.50 due to a billing adjustment error made by the carrier (for early-morning deliveries). 

Had the shipper not conducted that analysis, there’s no telling when it would have recognized that it was being overcharged by $1.50 per package. Multiply that number times thousands of shipments per year and the value of frequent service audits becomes crystal clear.  

Why Bother Auditing?

With service guarantees being waived right now, many companies are wondering if they still need to audit their invoices and charges. The answer is “yes,” and here’s why: even with these waivers, there are still a high number of errors and ways to ferret out savings on pretty much any transportation bill. 

For example, shippers are still being hit with duplicate charges and other billing errors on top of late, incorrect and damaged shipments — problems that can directly impact customer service and retention. With fewer drivers on the road and higher demand for parcel capacity — largely due to the massive uptick in e-commerce shopping — both loss and damage incidences have increased. 

By auditing every package to make sure it’s successfully delivered, companies can manage the loss and damage process from start to finish. Audits can also uncover data regarding insufficient packaging and ensure that payments are accurate and on time. In fact, auditing is a great risk management tool that companies can use during both peak and regular seasons.    

Here are four more reasons why you need to continue service audits:

  • Good visibility into what you’re actually paying. The audit platform you use should break down carrier invoice details to the charge level to analyze all peak season surcharges, rates, and discounts. This year, we’ve seen a number of rate errors and worked on our clients’ behalf to recover over $1.4 million in savings. We’re also identifying duplicate charges and billing errors at the charge level, which is impossible to do without an invoice audit in place.
  • Make sure it gets there on time and in one piece. Sure, some service guarantees are waived right now, but shippers should still want to audit every package to ensure it is delivered and not lost in transit or damaged. This year, we’ve seen the perfect storm of greater-than-usual demand, fewer drivers, and more retailers shipping items that normally would be purchased and picked up in store. Without a doubt, that’s caused an increase in lost and damaged packages. 
  • Tracking losses and damages. The best approach is to manage the entire loss and damage process from identification to resolution and recovery. So far this year, Transportation Insight has secured over $1.7 million in loss and damage savings, and all while providing data regarding insufficient packaging details down to the SKU level. This is particularly helpful for companies that are introducing new products and/or shipping with new vendors.  
  • Pay accurate bills on time. The data collected during a service audit provides insights into how new surcharges or new carrier rules will impact transportation and the related costs. For example, FedEx recently announced a new late-payment fee effective January 2021. Using a compliance audit, companies can keep close tabs on these types of fees and either avoid them completely (by paying on time) or correcting errors (by flagging erroneous late fees). With so many staffing changes and work-from-home scenarios taking place in 2020, shippers need to be especially careful about paying their carrier invoices correctly and on time.

Helping You Rest Easier

Transportation Insight is the only parcel audit and logistics solution provider that undergoes an annual SOC 1 Type II third-party compliance audit. We check every parcel package within your supply chain to make sure you’re getting the service you selected at your contracted price. For example, if your company is paying for guaranteed service, Saturday pickup or delivery, or other services, we’ll make sure you get them. We also check for invalid pickup, as well as identify and follow up on lost or damaged packages.

Possessing deep industry expertise, our parcel team also monitors ongoing changes in the small package environment to help keep shippers apprised of the emerging cost-drivers that affect their profitable performance. 

4 Tips: Improve Profitability Despite Rising Transportation Costs

Profitable shipping is a very attainable goal, even in today’s uncertain environment, where FedEx and UPS peak carrier surcharges have become a moving target for all parcel shippers. Despite these rising costs, there are ways all companies can improve shipping profitability in 2020. 

Try using these four tried-and-true tactics for improving shipping profitability in any market conditions. 

  1. Think at a Package Level
    If you’re handling multiple pick-and-pack orders, you need to know what you’re putting into different sized packages. Align that information with the actual transportation costs, and then figure out the profitability level on each. 

    This can be a complex process, but ultimately it is important to understand that the dollar amount on your transportation invoice does not tie into your product profitability. Once you determine what it costs to ship each SKU, it becomes clear that offering free shipping at a $50 order threshold, for instance, may not yield a profitable order for your company. 
  2. Use Good Margin Management
    When your marketing department launches a promotion – “Buy $50 worth of stuff and get free shipping” – make sure the “losers” do not fill-up e-commerce shopping cart and drive your cost above profit. To avoid these problems, share relevant information across your organization to keep everyone marching in the same direction. 

  1. Leverage Data 
    Look not only at carrier data, but also sales data, product costs, fulfillment costs, and other metrics that go into a single order. Transportation Insight helps shippers accumulate all of that information and consolidate it into a unified dashboard that is used to track trends, pinpoint winning/losing SKUs, and single out other areas where the company may be losing money.

  1. Partner with a Transportation Expert
    Work with a reliable logistics provider that has built out the necessary systems and that spreads the value of those systems across numerous different users. The latter allows providers to leverage economies of scale and offer their services at an affordable cost. This translates into high value for shippers in any business or economic condition. 

Protect Profit for Every Customer and Every Order

Our latest strategy guide “You Shipped It, But … Did it Make Money?” raises a question that is on the minds of many business leaders. 

Your business has responded to significant shifts in consumer buying behaviors and your customers expectations are being met. But did the transaction yield profit for the business? Or did transportation cost complexity eclipse your margin in the rush to serve?

Open our guide on margin management for more strategies that will help you master your supply chain to protect profit for every order.

3 Ways to Manage Surcharges

Here are three ways to manage surcharges during parcel carriers’ peak season and it’s impact on your profit margin.

  1. Manage Surcharges: Face Peak Season Head-on.
    Review the terms and conditions of the agreements you have with your carriers. Work with your logistics partner to stay on top of these new charges, and to come up with ways to offset, absorb, or pass them along to your customers. We help customers understand those charges, why they were implemented and how they affect profitability (via good reporting and data analytics). Analysis comes with a roadmap for minimizing the impacts. 

  1. Dissect Charges on Your Carrier Invoices
    Many times, carrier invoices are so lengthy that the charges are lumped together. It’s not unusual to see duplicate charges, for instance, or duplicate tracking numbers being charged multiple times. And with the COVID-19 peak surcharges, the carriers are billing in multiple different ways, including paper invoices, follow-up emails and averages over multiple transactions. 

    Dissecting those charges and ensuring that everything was charged correctly can be time-consuming and onerous. Our audit team constantly reviews the applicability of the charges and the actual rates that were charged to ensure accuracy. 

  1. Use best shipping practices. It can be tempting to take orders and push them out the door without giving much thought to how much it costs to ship those packages. 

    Most companies understand that transportation costs take up a big chunk of their operating budgets. Few take the time to examine the true cost of shipping those goods

    Factor both predictable/annual rate increases and unpredictable carrier surcharges into the equation, and you get a recipe for poor profitability. To avoid this problem, always use best practices centered on the cost of shipping each and every package. 

Master Your Parcel Program

With regular invoice auditing and business intelligence reporting, you can remove most of the uncertainty from the current surcharge environment while also preparing for any new fees that may be coming. 

Deploying additional best practices in your parcel program can supplement your ability to proactively plan for mitigating the cost impact of peak season surcharges. See our infographic for more tips that will help you monitor and manage surcharges.

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 profit.

Carrier Surcharges: What’s the Real Impact?

Now we know more peak carrier 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.

Monitor, Pivot, Perform: Strategies for Unexpected Parcel Delivery Peaks

However, unlike the seasonal Black Friday and Prime Day spikes many shippers and carriers have mastered, the current parcel climate is yielding new challenges.

Home-bound customers aren’t answering the door for signature-seeking parcel delivery couriers. How does the FedEx and UPS driver complete deliveries at closed businesses? When parcel trucks are loaded to the roof and more e-commerce orders are filling the pipeline, essential supply shipments cannot stop and impede consumers’ medical, home office and home school needs.

During this non-standard peak period, communication is critical between shippers, carriers and customers. As the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation evolves across North America, an organization’s proactive efforts to monitor, validate and optimize its small package program can improve efficiencies, maintain customer service and control costs.

Parcel Volume is Filling Networks

Limitations on passenger travel across international borders isn’t slowing the movement of goods into the U.S. Air cargo flights enter the country daily, and the express market is working as usual. Essential goods – medical, protective and cleaning supplies – are getting priority over non-traditional retail shipments, but Amazon’s move to add workers illustrates that fulfillment and service providers are focused on meeting the rising online demand for vital needs.

“UPS’s network planning and operations teams are experienced with adapting to changing conditions, and are developing contingency plans to address potential sources of disruption in our air and ground networks,” UPS Chairman and CEO David Abney said in a March 18 email to the marketplace. “Our teams are working to continue to serve the supply chain needs of businesses during this time, while keeping our employees and customers safe.”

Like organizations around the globe, carriers are focused on good hygiene within facilities and among employees, but they’re also focused on maintaining their own efficient operations. Packages destined for a location that is closed under nine days, will be held at the UPS/FedEx centers. However, if the delivery location is closed more than nine days, they are returning to the shipper.

The central issue here becomes two-fold:

  • Carriers don’t have storage for these packages. Many held packages are being stored in feeder units (trucks) and stay there until unloaded for scheduled delivery. If an urgent package needs delivery, shippers will likely have to resend product. 
  • If drivers are unable to deliver a package due to time constraints or buildings are closed, they are instructed to mark them “Emergency Conditions – COVID-19.” All of those packages will circumvent guaranteed service refunds.

Meanwhile, UPS and FedEx are easing requirements for physical signatures, and offering alternatives to customers meeting a driver at the door. For deliveries to high-density buildings closed to outside traffic, such as apartment complexes, service to lockboxes or other alternative pick-up points may become increasingly prevalent.

In this environment, it is important that shippers closely monitor and validate parcel service performance, especially within carriers’ complicated accessorial structures. Interior deliveries may not be feasible. Heavy weight packages, such as reams of paper for the home office, will generate additional costs. Be alert for carrier adjustments to rates and services during this non-standard peak period.

Nuances related to parcel delivery services can create new challenges for commercial shippers accustomed to operating in a business-to-business world. Responding to direct-to-consumer delivery demands can trigger unfamiliar shipping cost assessments. An experienced shipping provider can help implement drop-shipping programs that balance cost and service for shippers responding to home-bound consumers. That partner’s ability to monitor transportation activity also supports shippers’ proactive communication of delivery status or delays to end customers.

Monitor Fluctuations in Spend and Volume

Our team has spoken with customers experiencing a spike in online orders stemming from people staying home to reduce the risk of infection. As spread of the virus evolves, employee absence could jeopardize their ability to fulfill orders. Curtailment of non-essential shipments could further impact some organizations’ shipping volume.

It is important to actively monitor carrier spend levels to protect volume-based discount incentives. Earned discount thresholds offered in parcel carrier agreements are based on a 52-week rolling average. In the event of a slowdown, as new weeks of data are incorporated, the gross rolling average will decline and discount incentives will adjust downward.

For FedEx customers, this often results in an incremental change. The change for UPS customers could be more stark as a shipper’s spend levels diminish over time.

As the transportation environment continues to shift, it may make sense for some small package shippers to consider evaluating low-weight, multi-piece LTL shipments. Where warranted, transitioning those shipments to UPS Hundredweight or FedEx Multiweight can help drive revenue calculations.

If your company’s fluctuating parcel spend jeopardizes discount incentives, now is the time to have an honest conversation with account managers about the current situation, or consider exploring other carrier options. This can spur broader conversations that support improved cost management, including routing guides for outbound volume or billing practices that put cost control in your hands instead of your vendor partner.

Experienced parcel shippers can manage these program practices in-house. However, at a time when operational demands challenge many companies’ profitable performance, multi-modal transportation management experts using technology-enabled analysis can support parcel shipping optimization that enhances service and controls costs.

Parcel logistics leaders: Now more than ever it is important to make sure you get the best carrier rates possible. Companies pursuing peak fulfillment opportunities can leverage this non-standard peak season to their benefit while protecting customer experience.

Long-term Parcel Outlook

Don’t trust any crystal ball hype that you’re hearing in the marketplace. Nobody can predict what is happening tomorrow, next week or over the long-term. One thing is certain: there will be change.

This creates new opportunities to examine end-to-end organizational processes.

Digital transformation in recent years laid groundwork for the supply chain evolution many organizations are already embracing. Sourcing strategies, vendor locations and distribution network design are key elements in executives’ active conversations during this time of disruption. The prospect of financial incentives will drive more companies to diversify and reshore domestic production.

Transportation Insight manages supply chains for organizations of all sizes so they can focus on areas of their own expertise. Combining parcel invoice audit and payment, data management and analysis with decades of deep parcel industry experience, we help clients align their multi-modal transportation programs with carrier capabilities and customer demands.

In a dynamic, unpredictable marketplace, we’re here to lead you through efforts to adapt your current strategy, construct contingency plans for future disruptions and monitor your carriers performance. To make sure your small package shipping processes are delivering maximum value when it is needed most, schedule a parcel program assessment today.

Where is zip code 99999? A Piece of Clean Data Makes a Big Difference

Of course not. It doesn’t exist. In fact, the highest real zip code is 99950, for Ketchikan, Alaska. Still, if you scour your database, there’s a good chance you’ll find more than a few 99999 zip codes. 

Most organizations find that it’s been entered as a placeholder in their shipment database. If shipments go as planned, what’s the problem? If your strategy calls for automating your processes, you’ll encounter serious challenges created by a lack of data accuracy. Let’s talk about how data becomes inaccurate and what you can do about it.

Dirty Data Drives Supply Chain Inefficiency 

Depending on the solutions in use, a database may fill in 99999 if no zip code is entered, or 99999 may have been entered rather than taking the time to look up the correct number. While a placeholder zip code may not be a fatal problem, it’s likely an indicator of deeper issues. That’s one reason industry experts estimate that data is faulty in 35 to 40 percent of supply chain systems.

For example, look at a company’s fundamental systems such as the Item Master, Customer Master and Vendor Master. They must be comprehensively reviewed and corrected. Basic data such as dimension and weights could be filled with default numbers. That means there’s been a lack of validation of the data that’s been input. The lack of accurate, clean data leads to expensive inefficiency through mistakes and a lot of manual handling. 

While individual data problems are not good, they are also a symptom of the more significant challenge of potentially suspect data. Without the right numbers as a baseline, it’s impossible to make accurate strategic decisions. If you’re looking at adding or repositioning distribution centers, rationalizing your product lines, or myriad other initiatives, clean data makes all the difference. 

Clean data is also essential for implementing automation, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. Poor data quality can lead to problems with carrier compliance, shipment tracking and predictive and prescriptive analytics. As shipments generate more and more data in real-time, quality data is essential. It’s also vital for decision-making and sharing with strategic partners to drive benefits across your shipping eco-system.

Solving the Dirty Data Problem

How do you correct the zip code 99999 problem in your company? 

The key is to evaluate the integrity of data collection and management programs continuously, not only against your internal requirements but also in relation to external demands. Does your organization have the capability to dig deep into your data collection and management programs, identify challenges and fix them with internal resources? Or will the organizational structures and culture prevent you from making the necessary changes? Third-party analysis may be required to identify the data issues that will derail your competitiveness.

To find out more about ensuring your organization is prepared for next-generation technologies, read our resource guide, AI, Blockchain, Machine Learning: Is Your Data Ready?

Reverse Logistics: Charting a Course to Protect Profit

But in the real world, errors can happen without warning. From human errors in picking orders to wrong shipping labels applied to boxes, even the best logistics plans can face uncertainty. In fact, as more apparel shoppers buy various sizes and return what doesn’t fit, a perfectly processed shipment can still result in returned goods. That’s where the “Reverse Logistics” process comes in: returning items from the consumer back to the company with the goal of managing final disposition. 

Does your company have a solid reverse logistics plan? As customers demand more flexibility, it’s important now more than ever to consider how reverse logistics fit into your overall strategy.  

What is Reverse Logistics?


The term “reverse logistics” was first coined in a 1992 whitepaper written by James R. Stock, Ph.D., a professor at the University of South Florida, and published by the Council of Logistics Management (now known as the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals). In scholarly terms, reverse logistics is defined as: “the process of moving goods from their typical final destination for the purpose of capturing value, or proper disposal.”

Five years later, a Dutch research team would delve further into that category with their own paper, published in the European Journal of Operational Research. Titled “Quantitative models for reverse logistics: A review,” the team acknowledged the “recently emerged field of reverse logistics” was a new area of study, and “…the time seems right for a systematic overview of the issues arising in the context of reverse logistics.” 

As computing advanced, the study of reverse logistics changed from an operational and mathematical field to a technology-driven field. Dr. Stock revisited the topic in a 2002 article published in Harvard Business Review, writing: “There are many reasons for this trend—the rise of electronic retailing, the increase in catalog purchases, more self-service in stores, lower tolerance among buyers for imperfection—but few companies are doing the best job of dealing with it.” He also noted several companies that were handling reverse logistics well at the time, including General Motors and Volvo.

In short: Every business that ships goods from warehouse to the customer needs a reverse logistics plan. And with technology touching every aspect of our lives, a traditional approach may not be enough to keep customers happy. 

The Problem With Standard Reverse Logistics Strategy

Traditionally, the reverse logistics plan always began with a human touch. After receiving a damaged or incorrect parcel, the customer called a toll-free number and requested permission to return their product. If approved, a return merchandise authorization was issued, and the customer was free to return their product via the preferred shipping method. The returned product  then took a long journey from customer to distribution center to returns center where the product’s ultimate fate was determined. 

Technology has made this model entirely outdated. First, utilizing traditional methods can add unnecessary shipping costs, making a return even more expensive than a lost refund. In addition, going through each of these steps adds a manpower cost – one which requires paying a salary and a share of benefits. 

While these steps were necessary in a pre-Internet world, technology has rendered much of this process obsolete. The problem is that despite the leaps that provide a much more customer-focused approach, some companies are still doing things the old-fashioned way – and quietly losing money as a result. 

The Benefits Re-Focusing the Reverse Logistics Strategy

Today’s reverse logistics doesn’t require a staff of hundreds of people processing  returns from around the world to determine their final disposition. Instead, a re-focus of reverse logistics can save a company time, manpower and realize a reduction in shipping costs. 

By utilizing a technology-focused approach to reverse logistics, the returns process doesn’t start with a call center and toll-free number, but with an automated form leading a consumer down a guided path. The right forms can lead users down a focused course of action that has more accuracy than a voice call and that effectively pre-sorts items before they are inspected for disposition. 

Through this pre-screening process, companies can significantly save on shipping costs. Once the technology determines where the item is destined, a return merchandise authorization form and shipping label with the most cost-effective means possible is automatically produced. This sends the item to the appropriate return center, where a quick inspection can confirm the item condition and bundle it with other items on an LTL load. Utilizing technology, the company reduces the amount of trucks required for shipping, resulting in actualized savings. 

Finally, a process that once involved several steps and weeks becomes a streamlined solution. Technology-enabled management of the intake process frees your workforce to focus on value-driven tasks, giving you optimal productivity from your team. 

The Downside of Advanced Reverse Logistics Strategy

Of course, there are still challenges that can emerge in a holistic reverse logistics strategy. While technology is a great customer service enabler, it downsides can emerge as well. 

For example: a 22-year-old Spanish citizen was arrested in August 2019 on suspicion of returning boxes filled with dirt to a major online retailer. Instead of returning items, the scam artist weighed each box with items inside, and filled them to the same weight with dirt. He was accused of taking over $370,000 in fraudulent returns from the company. 

In this situation, the reverse logistics plan experienced an unforeseen issue. Automated inspection prior to disposition resulted in widespread fraud and benefit abuse. This is where the power of a trusted third-party logistics provider (3PL) comes in: through deep analysis of costs, benefits, gains and weaknesses, you can build an advanced reverse logistics strategy that will pass many common tests. 

How To Get Your Company Ready For Advanced Reverse Logistics 

If your reverse logistics process could benefit from a technology boost, it might be time to get a parcel program assessment from the leader in 3PL management: Transportation Insight. As your partner in transportation management, we can help you start preparing or fine-tuning a reverse logistics plan that utilizes technology to give you the competitive edge. Contact us today and get started on a strategy that prepares you for the future.