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Shippers look to keep 2021 transportation budgets grounded

30 Oct 2020
Category: News
Author: Evan Pundyk

The cost of freight transportation in and out of the United States — whether it be for an ocean container, space on an airplane, an empty 53-foot trailer, or a parcel van making a final-mile delivery — is rising significantly. That’s forcing cargo owners to take a hard look at 2021 transportation budgets, in terms of not just how to mitigate cost increases but what they can do to maintain service.

Further complicating 2021 transportation budgets is broad uncertainty about the health of the US economy and indeed US consumers themselves, as COVID‑19 cases hit new highs this fall. Although US consumer demand for physical goods is white-hot, as reflected by the unexpected wave of Asian imports battering West Coast ports, economists are warning of a lengthy economic recovery.

That leaves shippers’ budgetary plans balanced on a knife’s edge as they meet with carriers across all modes to discuss the renewal of annual contracts. The tight freight markets of the fourth quarter provide an argument for moderate to significant contractual rate increases, but the possibility of a slower US recovery makes cementing long-term plans increasingly difficult for shippers.

Logistics managers are responding by opening contract talks early, extending existing contracts where possible, and seeking short-term contracts for smaller portions of their business, according to several shippers and logistics executives that spoke with They’re making volume forecasts more accurate and protecting the business of core carriers that are crucial to their supply chains. They’re communicating early and often with carriers and with their own CEOs and CFOs.

“You can’t hide from market pressure if it is real,” a logistics manager at a Midwest-based food shipper said. At the same time, excessive price pressure may backfire, he said. “Money doesn’t come from thin air. In an environment where swaths of the economy are closed and many business categories and channels are dark, how long should carriers expect to ask for more?”

This year is not 2018, the last period when transportation capacity was this tight, at least on land, spurring double-digit rate hikes. At that time, the US economy was expanding healthily. That’s certainly not the case in 2020, and it may not be next year either.

“By the second half of 2021, we could be back to a carrier recession with lagging volumes,” the food shipper said. “I wouldn’t mistake market volatility for a carrier bull run on a humming economy.”

Disruption, demand tighten capacity

Freight capacity across modes is expected to remain tight heading into 2021, however. It’s not just that transportation demand in some sectors, such as big-box retail and e-commerce, is high. Eight months after the COVID-19 pandemic crashed the economy, supply chains of all types remain disrupted and assets and workers dislocated.

“The challenges our [shipper] customers face vary by industry,” Mark Yeager, president of third-party logistics provider (3PL) Redwood Logistics, said in an interview. He pointed out that some industries lag others in this recovery. Manufacturing has not recovered to pre-COVID levels of demand and has had difficulty bringing employees back to factory floors.

“Some [customers] are facing major shifts in their inbound flows and in production capacity; some are seeing a shift in who they’re shipping to,” Yeager said. “Layer on top of that the complexities of a market that is shifting as quickly as I’ve ever seen, and it’s not surprising that shippers have blown through their budgets. They’re not used to this.”

The extent of proposed rate hikes is frustrating shippers, especially those that held themselves out as “shippers of choice” and didn’t press for rate cuts when the bottom dropped out of the market in the second quarter. Shippers are also raising complaints about carrier service, from blanked container ship sailings to late less-than-truckload (LTL) deliveries.

“We’re taking a much harder look at the service side” in trucking negotiations, said a West Coast–based consumer goods shipper. “If I’m going to pay the higher rate, then I need something in return. If we’re paying more, and we still get crappy service, we’ve got to find a different vendor.”

Shorter contracts, better forecasting

The threat of higher rates on land, sea, and air has more and more shippers tossing their old annual contract playbooks and shortening their budgeting horizons. They’re negotiating more narrowly focused, shorter-term contracts that lock in transportation rates and capacity they need today, tomorrow, and next week, rather than six to nine months from now.

But shorter-term bids require more data and flexibility from shippers, according to John Haber, CEO of Spend Management Experts. “Now more than ever, shippers need to understand all of their shipping costs and be able to adapt quickly to sudden changes,” Haber told “Investments in visibility and analytic tools are important to [be able to] access and understand shipping data.”

Even short-term contracts won’t head off rate increases, however. Data reported by marketing intelligence firm Xeneta show short-term ocean container rates in late October were in the range of $2,400 to $2,500 per FEU to the West Coast. That compares with the trans-Pacific rates of $1,300 to $1,400 per FEU importers secured in annual service contracts this spring.

Looking toward 2021, importers are bracing for a possible doubling of ocean freight rates in the trans-Pacific. Although negotiations on 2021-22 contracts won’t begin until next spring, carriers have alerted customers that rates could be in the range of $2,000 to $2,500 per FEU, with one carrier telling “negotiations will start at the higher end of that range.”

Several sources indicate shippers could be looking at 20 to 30 percent rate hikes from container lines and mid-single-digit increases from intermodal rail and trucking providers. FedEx has announced a general rate increase of 4.9 percent beginning in January, and UPS is expected to follow suit, but parcel carriers are also using surcharges more than in previous years to manage shipment intake.

Better forecasting may help retailers and direct importers avoid the nightmare they have endured since summer, when carriers began charging spot rates that exceeded $3,800 per FEU to the West Coast and $4,600 to the East Coast for any imports above a shipper’s minimum quantity commitment (MQC).

That nightmare followed them to shore, as Union Pacific Railroad imposed thousands of dollars in surcharges from West Coast ports on freight beyond service contract commitments as imports flooded its network. Surcharges rippled through to some LTL carriers and to parcel operators FedEx and UPS, as each tried to prevent their networks from drowning in freight.

As a result, shippers say they will try to be more precise when it comes to forecasting in 2021, to ensure they remain within MQCs. The logistics manager of an automotive parts company whose imports are relatively consistent throughout the year said he will base his MQCs on “normal” demand and then guard against unexpected surges via non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOs) or short-term contracts.

The difficulty for many shippers is getting good forecasting data from their suppliers. “We’ve noticed a lot of our factories just are not savvy enough to give good forecasts,” a Southeast furniture shipper said. “The truckload carriers we use need this data; otherwise the factory is going to be jammed up with products because the trucker hasn’t shown up on time.”

Simply jumping at the lowest contract rates in the market is a recipe for disaster, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) told If carriers generally believe the service contract rates they have negotiated in the spring are compensatory, they should be more measured in imposing general rate increases during periods of high demand, shippers said.

However, if ocean carriers are as successful in managing vessel capacity next year as they were this year, there is a “probability” that trans-Pacific contract rates increase by $1,000 per container “and that rates to the West Coast effectively double year on year,” said James Caradonna, general manager of pricing, Americas, at M+R Forwarding and MCL-Multi Container Line, an ocean freight forwarder.

BCOs believe they can avoid extreme swings in ocean container pricing if service contracts recognize the uncertainties in the current trade environment and the terms are written to protect the ocean carriers as well as shippers if trade conditions change dramatically. The same holds true across transportation modes, shippers and consultants say.

“We’re seeing shippers say, ‘I need different strategies to value my incumbents,’” said Ben Cubitt, senior vice president of supply chain and transportation at the 3PL Transplace. His shipper customers are approaching motor carriers early and agreeing not to put their business up for bid, or accepting a moderate rate increase to keep those core carriers, he said.

When it comes to last-mile and package pricing, Haber said UPS and FedEx are trying to get shippers into long-term contracts to better plan their own capacity needs. He thinks parcel capacity constraints will ease as additional workers hired in 2020 stay on at the carriers into 2021.

“But all of this, of course, is dependent on the availability of a [COVID-19] vaccine, which will impact last-mile delivery capacity availability — by how much is anyone’s guess right now,” he said.

Air cargo’s capacity problem

While ocean carriers managed — some might even say restricted — capacity this year, airlines simply lost it.

A significant percentage of available global air freight capacity is carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft, the vast majority of which were grounded when international travel bans were imposed in late March. That slashed cargo space on the trans-Pacific, Asia–Europe, and Europe–North America routes in half overnight. Some destinations were even more severely affected, such as routes to South America, where as much as 70 percent of cargo travels in passenger planes.

The removal of so much capacity sent rates soaring to record levels during the second quarter, and while those rates have come down from their mid-May highs, capacity has remained well below the level of demand, keeping rates at elevated levels on all trade lanes. Now, air cargo-heavy product launches, such as new smartphones, are filling the limited capacity and again pushing up rates.

With no widescale resumption of passenger transport likely for two or three years, some cargo owners are turning to expedited ocean and rail services as an alternative, but the majority of air cargo shippers, for whom these are not viable options, can expect the air segment of their transportation spend next year to be substantially higher than in the past.

Air capacity will become even tighter when a COVID-19 vaccine is ready for mass production and distribution.

“That’s going to be a major disruptor, especially to the cold chain and air freight,” said John Janson, global logistics manager at apparel distributor SanMar. “There just isn’t enough capacity to fulfill the demand if you’re delivering vaccines to millions of people around the globe. That is going to put tremendous pressure on the marketplace.”

Rate expectations gap

Shippers are deploying some of the same cost control strategies in trucking and intermodal rail as they are on the ocean: using short-term contracts, strengthening core carrier relationships, improving volume forecasts, and hedging against demand shocks by working with 3PLs and additional carriers.

“We’ve had to make adjustments week to week,” Matt Montour, senior director of logistics at IPC, the purchasing cooperative for franchisees in the Subway restaurant chain, said in an interview. “The challenge is how do you get through the next months?” Contract negotiations right now are not about price, but about securing needed capacity, he said.

The Southeast furniture shipper also sees more frequent bids as part of the solution for rising intermodal costs. “You just can’t do an annual bid and sit back and leave it alone,” he said. “You probably have to be in the market three to five times a year. Sometimes the swings in intermodal pricing can be crazy.”

“Volume is definitely elevated in pockets while sorely missing in others,” the Midwest food shipper said. He emphasized the need to protect core carriers and reward those who provide great service. “Flooding your network with low-cost carriers that just want to get a foot in the door tends to decimate the routing guide,” he said. “On the flip side, any carrier approaching the table looking for a double-digit increase due to the pandemic may lose their invitation.”

There’s a gap in pricing expectations that has not yet begun to close. While many US shippers expect truck pricing to increase by mid-single digits, some carriers expect much more. The reason most often cited is lack of truck drivers.

“We expect contract rates in 2021 to increase on average by 10 to 15 percent,” Eric Fuller, president and CEO of US Xpress Enterprises, told investment analysts during an Oct. 23 earnings call. Fuller believes a year-over-year decline in the number of long-haul truck drivers may reach 200,000 by 2021, keeping pressure on pricing.

As a result, Fuller expects to see structural changes in the request for proposal (RFP) bidding process over the next three to five years. “I wouldn’t say that this year is the year” for significant change, he said during the call. “This year, everybody’s really focused around trying to capture capacity because of concerns that are going to be ongoing into 2021.”

Taking it to the C-Suite

Logistics managers, of course, can’t wait three to five years to discuss next year’s budget with their CFOs and CEOs. This year, those discussions have been tense, to say the least.

“My warning to my C-suite this year sent them through a loop,” said a furniture shipper who asked not to be identified. “They called an immediate meeting the next morning with everybody on the phone to talk about ocean rates and asked me how this could have happened. They were in disbelief. But there’s no way out, there’s nowhere to hide.”

“How do I go to the C-suite? I go to them with a bulletproof vest on,” another shipper said. “At the same time, everybody who’s doing the same thing we are is dealing with the same thing. We’re not being singled out as a customer by our suppliers. So, if we’re not able to increase pricing in the marketplace, we have to find other areas where we can cut back.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of the supply chain and transportation to the attention of everyone from the C-suite down to the sub-basement. When they’re called to explain rocketing costs, logistics managers need to bring more data to the table, said Dave Reiss, senior vice president of customer relations for the 3PL Arrive Logistics.

“There’s more data, more indices available today than ever before,” Reiss said. “If you’re going to talk to your finance team or your C-suite, you’ve got to leverage these indices. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a 5 or 6 percent rate increase year over year.’ You have to have the justification behind it and explain what’s going on in the marketplace.”


Photo credit:, original article posted here:

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