The Current State of Freight: What You Can Expect

08/31/2021 — Leah Palnik

To say the freight market is strained right now might be an understatement. If you’ve experienced significantly higher rates and less reliability from your carriers, you’re not alone. As someone who is shipping freight, it’s critical to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the market in order to navigate the challenges that are coming with it. Let’s break down the factors that have led us here and what we can expect moving forward.

Key factors that have led to challenges in the transportation industry
Like so many other industries, freight transportation has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the cultural shifts that have come along with it. The pandemic not only created new challenges, but also exasperated existing pain points in the market – leading to the perfect storm. It all boils down to a case of supply vs. demand.

  • Consumer buying is strong and is driving up demand. While the world was locked down, we weren’t spending money on vacations or going out to eat. In many cases those spending dollars went towards buying goods instead. Retailers are doing what they can to keep up with demand and as a result, have an increased need for trucks to deliver their much needed inventory.
  • There is a truck driver shortage. The driver shortage is old news, but it is still very relevant now. Sometimes there just simply aren’t enough drivers available to take on new loads. For years, there have been more drivers retiring and leaving the profession than there have been new drivers entering the market. Unfortunately, the open road hasn’t been as attractive to this generation of the workforce as it once was.
  • Building new tractors are constrained by parts availability. Not only is it hard to move freight with less available drivers, but now we are also seeing a limit on new trucks on the road. Supply chains for many goods have been seriously disrupted thanks to the pandemic, and parts that are needed to build new tractors are no exception.

How LTL carriers are responding
With such volatile market conditions, LTL carriers are forced to respond. As no surprise, a major course of action they’ve taken is to increase rates. Simple economics tells us that an increased demand means they can charge more for their services.

Not only are they increasing rates, but they’re also looking to shed less desirable freight from their networks. Loads deemed less profitable, or more trouble than they’re worth, are harder to get covered because carriers want to prioritize loads that allow them to work efficiently and profitably.

Missed pickups, declined freight, and temporary terminal embargos have now become common place and plague freight carriers across the country, regardless of the company name and logo on the side of the truck.

LTL freight observations from the front lines
Many of our customers are exhausted dealing with carrier issues. In a survey we conducted earlier this year, 78% of respondents cited rising shipping costs as a challenge they were currently facing. Along with that, 47% noted they were experiencing longer transit times and 36% were dealing with poor carrier performance.

Freight shipping challenges

Our team has also noticed several concerning trends pop up with freight carriers. As if raising base rates wasn’t enough, we’ve seen them put in extra effort to collect on everything they can. Accessorial fees that you may not have seen on your bill in the past are now showing up for services you’ve always received. The carriers just aren’t as lax as they may have been in the past for charging for these extra services.

Because freight networks are so strained, we’re also seeing an uptick in missing shipments. If this has happened to you, you know how stressful it can be. The carriers are also doing everything in their power to deny claims for both missing and damaged shipments. They’re wanting to see them filed sooner than ever before and are requiring a great deal of evidence.

Estimated transit times for LTL freight has never been guaranteed, but now more than ever, we’re seeing shipments miss that predicted window. Unfortunately, longer transit times and missed pick-ups are becoming extremely prevalent, again due to how ill equipped carriers are to meet the current freight demand.

The quickly recovering economy is creating a new environment, in which all industries are competing for freight capacity and causing a new set of standards. Some shippers may be shocked by new carrier practices - from new fees to increased pickup and delivery times.

What can you do?
You may want to live by the old adage about how you can’t change others, only yourself. It’s not within your power to control carrier performance or consumer demand, but you can educate yourself and act accordingly.

  • Use a quality broker, like PartnerShip. While brokers have no control over what a carrier ultimately does with a shipment, a quality freight broker will provide the communication and creative solutions you need when caught up in an issue.
  • Follow the tried-and-true best practices for overcoming capacity challenges. Expand your current carrier network, build in extra time at every step of the shipping process, consolidate your shipments, and consider alternative services. While it’s not always possible to implement these strategies, following them any time the market is experiencing tight capacity can be very advantageous to your operations.
  • Become a shipper of choice. This means making your freight desirable to carriers. You probably aren’t able to change what you’re shipping, but there are some factors you can control. Being flexible with pick-up and delivery times, ensuring ease of access for the truck, and avoiding long detention times are all things carriers ultimately appreciate.

The widely reported driver shortage is very real, but it is only part of the challenge. Capacity is increasing, but not as quickly as the demand grows. Organizations that can adjust and plan accordingly will do a great deal to minimize disruptions in their supply chain.

Moving forward
Back to school season is upon us and the holidays are right around the corner. In short, demand is not expected to drop anytime soon. Will the supply side be able to catch up? Not likely. Recruiting and retaining the needed labor force will continue to be one of the biggest challenges in the industry. And as we enter hurricane season and another COVID-19 surge, we could see even more network disruptions.

At this point, it’s important to manage expectations. You’ll want to budget for higher freight costs and be mindful of potential delays, so you’re not caught off guard. For everything in-between, our team has the expertise to help you navigate these challenges. Contact PartnerShip today and lean on us when you need it most.

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