The February 2023 jobs report showed some serious job growth, estimating that over 300,000 new jobs were added to the economy. During an average year, that would be tremendous; during a period of economic hardship, like the current global marketplace is still struggling through, you would typically expect those numbers to be big news. Job growth (or the lack of it) is one of the most commonly used statistics economists look at to make their projections and otherwise assess the health of the economy, because the number of employed people impacts everything else—for example, consumer spending.
But, for some reason, other current statistics aren’t showing that much of an increase at all, which is odd. Not all of the stats correlated to job growth are necessarily positive ones, either—for example, increased inflation usually correlates with increased employment numbers. That aside, the majority of other economic metrics are typically the ones associated with healthy, growing economies.
Think about everything that happens when someone is hired as an office worker, for example. Not only does that person get added to payroll and begin drawing a paycheck (and paying taxes, and often receiving benefits—health insurance premiums, 401k contributions, etc.), there are countless other small economic activities that take place from this new hire. The business will often purchase their equipment, like computers, possibly office furniture; coffee in the office will be consumed a bit faster and need to be purchased more often or in greater volume; and frequently (though less typically than a few years ago) that new employee will have some type of commute. A generously short 10-mile commute will consume a gallon of gas every day, and that’s assuming the new employee never makes any stops along the way at a coffee shop.
The point here is that additional jobs correlate with additional economic activities, and those other activities have historically increased right alongside job growth statistics.
So why isn’t the shipping market bouncing back alongside these statistics?
We’re still in a strange economic situation
Consumer spending habits have changed so dramatically that traditional data analysis methods may not be viable, at least until things change. Think back to the early days of Covid, back when toilet paper and hand sanitizer was next to impossible to find, but think about everything else that went on, too. There was a huge spike in consumer purchasing for all sorts of products, not just consumable or wellness products, partially fueled by stimulus distributions.
A significant chunk of the middle class kept their jobs and shifted to remote work. That meant they still received their paychecks, but also received “unexpected” (at least at the beginning of 2020) windfalls from these stimulus checks. A surprising number of these people used that money not just for maintaining their standard of living, as you normally expect (covering housing payments, putting food on the table, paying bills, etc.) Many used those checks ($1,200, $600, and $1,400 per eligible person, plus additional funds for dependents; the maximum benefit for a married couple with three child dependents totaled $13,900 between April of 2020 and March of 2021) to make purchases they otherwise might have put off. These are long-term, durable purchases—recreational vehicles, televisions, living room furniture, and other high-ticket items that will last for years before they need to be replaced.
But… how many couches does someone need to buy? Not one every few months for the next ten years. The same goes for RVs, televisions, and more of these types of durable goods. But for a few quarters, demand skyrocketed for those types of items. In response, businesses started ordering more of their products, just as you’d expect them to. The problems began when factories started getting overloaded and ports saw significant slowdowns in their turnaround time for unloading. The shipping backlog dragged on for months—but demand started slowing down as the market cooled off from that flurry of stimulus activity. So businesses suddenly woke up one day and realized that they had (in some cases) doubled up on their inventory, and slowed down or stopped their ordering activity in favor of inventory liquidation.
To summarize: a surprising number of long-term, high-value products saw a tremendous spike in demand and sales, businesses overordered to meet that demand, and when the pendulum swung back in the other direction, they dropped their high volume and began selling what they already have. Businesses are now making much smaller, more tightly focused orders for these types of products, rather than focusing on stocking up ahead of time.
Basically, the United States economy packed in a few years’ worth of purchasing activity into one year, and it’s going to take some time before demand rebounds. But that’s compounded by other unusual circumstances:
Economic uncertainty has changed public psychology
For the first time in many years—for some in the younger generations, maybe the first time in their professional lives—interest rates are no longer at fire sale rates. Interest rates were cut way back and kept low for years, which meant one thing for lots of people: very cheap financing. That’s part of what was fueling big ticket sales like RVs during the Covid demand spike: buyers were able to finance it at extremely low rates. Cheap, low-interest loans are much harder to find. In Q1 of last year (2022), the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate in the United States was just over 3%. This week, it’s 6.5% (source).
This is intended to reduce inflation, and it will, but it will also make consumers less likely to spend money on unnecessary items even if they have it. Everyone who’s been to the grocery store in the past few months has noticed how much prices have gone up across the board. For some items, even sale prices are higher than their old regular price—certain types of coffee, for instance. Add on rumors of issues with some banks and whispers of “recession” in hushed voices, and you have consumers wary of overextending their budgets.
Many consumers have begun questioning what constitutes a “necessary” expense for themselves. Remote work, for example, means that many employees aren’t stopping for a coffee on their way into the office, buying less gas, eating out less often, and a thousand (or more) other small (but, combined, significant) purchases that they have decided they can live without.
We need new types of data
All of this combined means that old indicators of economic strength (or weakness) may no longer be as accurate as we’re accustomed to. Jobs reports like February’s are still great news to hear, but they no longer mean that we can necessarily look forward to increased consumer spending anymore. Enough consumers are being cautious and keeping an eye on their spending habits closely enough that the data we used to rely on may no longer be viable. This means economists will need to start looking for new sources of information to make their predictions.
Until we have methodology that’s as solid as we’re used to, it might be hard for some businesses to accurately anticipate the demand for their products. That means that the current state of freight shipping and inventory ordering will likely remain as it is for at least a while longer. Currently, many businesses are on a beak-to-trough system, ordering only what they know they’ll need—and will be able to sell. That’s perfectly understandable. In short: when consumers are watching every penny they spend, businesses would be smart to match their caution, and keep a close eye on their own inventory practices. Too many overextended and found themselves in tricky situations—full warehouses with too few customers to sell to—and were seriously damaged as a result.
Businesses should work with a partner who can help them manage their ordering processes step-by-step, from factory floor to last-mile delivery. The more efficient you can make these processes and the more agile you are with your operations, the better you’ll be able to respond to a rapidly shifting market landscape.
There are a number of reasons for some of the significant carriers to team up with one another (instead of directly competing). These alliances allow the carriers to pool cargo between them, and share their resources without trying to outdo the competition on pricing. Over the past decade, several carriers have made similar agreements with one another to take advantage of the opportunities working together affords them. We’ve been through several generations of major shipping alliances by now, and the latest is considered to have really begun in 2017.
This latest generation included three major alliances—2M, Ocean, and THE.
2M: Maersk, MSC, and ZIM.
Ocean: COSCO, OOCL, Evergreen, and CMA
THE: Hapag-Lloyd, ONE, HMM, and YML.
These types of alliances have come and gone since the nineties, but this latest round is a bit different from ones we’ve seen before. The scale of the combined carriers is much wider than previous arrangements. 2M, for example, represents 30% of the world’s container trading capacity. This type of consolidation plainly has an impact on global shipping—and has, in some cases, raised antitrust concerns. Let’s take a closer look at the carrier alliances, and what the future might look like.
The Biggest Alliance Benefit: Standardization
One of the most obvious reasons for the success of franchises like McDonald’s is an essentially universal experience. Big Macs in Florida are just like Big Macs in Wyoming; it’s always familiar, which is comforting. But shipping practices and available technologies aren’t always identical between carriers.
One of the most significant market-wide benefits of these alliances has been the expansion of digitization practices. Shipping a container with one carrier within an alliance is a much more standardized experience than it used to be. And with much of the shipping field allied with multiple partners, processes are now very nearly identical. This improved interoperability results in a much simpler experience for most customers, which can help make your own processes simpler in turn.
While carriers are enjoying benefits on their end and customers are receiving a more standardized experience, alliances aren’t necessarily helping the shipping market. The International Transport Forum—and inter-governmental organization (operating within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Devolopment, or OECD) with 65 member countries dedicated to providing policy makers with accurate information and recommendations to improve the global transport system—released a report in 2018 titled The Impact of Alliances in Container Shipping. The report takes a negative view of alliances, indicating that they are not having a positive impact on global trade.
The report indicates that these alliances are causing a number of market conditions that are unfavorable for their customers. Because the shipping industry has become much more tightly concentrated, competition is dramatically reduced. The sheer size of these carriers allows them to dominate shipping volume, creating a market imbalance that squeezes out other, smaller carriers who can’t compete within their individual shipping lanes. The concentration of shipping also leads to less efficient use of public infrastructure, reduced schedule reliability, and longer wait times for shipping.
Shipping customers tend to want simple things: lower costs, reliable service, and speedy deliveries. The mere fact that options are reduced by the lack of competitive options makes those priorities harder to come by on the open market.
Some Alliances are Ending
While this isn’t exactly breaking news, the 2M Alliance is coming to an end. In 2025, when the terms of the alliance expire, they will not be renewed, and the largest carrier alliance will no longer be in effect. We’re facing some interesting changes in the global shipping industry. With 2M dissolved, suddenly the market will have significantly greater competition. It should also be noted that the other two main alliances may eventually follow suit. While there’s no news to report in that regard, it’s possible that they also elect to dissolve their agreements.
Fewer alliances and greater numbers of individual carriers will mean some changes. First, as technology grows in different directions, it’s possible that we’ll start to see diverging experiences from one carrier to another. Since they’re no longer pooling resources, one carrier might invest in new types of digital tracking systems, for example, and offer their customers a more proprietary experience that another carrier can’t. And that’s just one tiny potential facet of what we might see.
Greater market competition will allow individual carriers the opportunity to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Tighter, leaner operations might offer greater reliability, of course, which is always beneficial. But, for many shipping customers, the bottom line is where they focus their attention.
While the end result of dissolving alliances won’t really be known until after they’ve ended, we can make some predictions on a number of aspects of container shipping. And it’s obvious from every market report that price competition is likely to be fiercer in the future. When carriers need to compete with one another, the simplest way to attract greater volume is with competitive pricing, along with better service.
Fewer alliances and increased individual carrier operations will mean shipping customers will have more options than they’ve had in a long time. Pricing, service experience, customer relations, technology—when you have a less standardized experience, customers will find the best shipping partners for their business, something that is harder to do when you only have a few options.
Of course, we strongly recommend working with a third-party logistics provider like OL-USA. As a single-source partner, we can help you find the right carriers for you at the right time—which might be harder to do in a landscape with increased competition. We can help you find and secure the best possible shipping rates with the most reliable carriers—without signing a long-term contract.
Efficiency is extremely important to almost any business. It’s nearly impossible for businesses to scale without keeping an eye on costs in most aspects of their operations. So, naturally, that includes the cost of moving cargo—and that side of the industry has seen some serious ups and downs over the past couple of years.
It seems like our global economy encounters a Black Swan Event every couple of years for the past few decades. The pandemic set off a chain of events that some predicted, but many did not. In late 2021 and early 2022, we saw some impacts on the shipping and logistics industry that are going to change the way a lot of businesses allocate their shipping budgets in the future—including right now.
Spot vs. Bid: What Happened Last Year?
Historically, businesses have tended to work with ocean carriers on a contract basis. For example, if a retailer needs to ship 5,000 containers during the course of business for that year, they’ll typically negotiate with a carrier to handle the majority of that—often, that will be how about 80-85% of their containers will be priced. Businesses tend to do this early in the year, to lock in their rates and make sure they know what they’ll be spending on shipping.
The remaining 15-20% of their containers will usually be done on a more ad hoc basis—meaning they’ll be paying the standard market or “spot” price that’s available at the time. These rates are variable, and change based on the conditions on the ground (or in the water, or in the air), including availability. Sometimes these rates are higher than their contracted rates, but sometimes they’re lower.
If you don’t remember (it’s hard for us to forget), the tail end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 saw a tremendous shipping crunch. Prices spiked, because availability had dropped precipitously. The contracted rates at the beginning of 2022 were, therefore, much higher than they were at the beginning of 2021.
Some major retailers negotiated shipping contracts with carriers that had relatively high rates—some were paying upwards of $6,000 per container. That’s a significant commitment for smaller retailers, many of whom were then forced to choose between limiting inventory restocking and forgo contracts, or take a chance that the market price for shipping rates was going to drop later in the year.
It turned out well for those who waited. The average spot price by the end of Q2 last year had cratered, all the way down to below $1,500/container. For those keeping score, that’s a 75% drop per container after a few months, when the crunch eased and availability began to bounce back. But those who were locked into contracts were stuck paying the negotiated rate that was set during the crunch.
Some of those businesses who were stuck in those contracts actually found it was less expensive to break their agreements, pay whatever penalties they were obligated to, and find open shipping space at the regular market rate. It’s unusual for just about any industry to find itself in a position where it’s cheaper to pay out for a broken contract than it is to stick to it; that’s usually the point of a contract in the first place.
What Does That Mean for This Year?
The situation from last year has made businesses extremely cautious, which is not a bad thing. This is the season during which ocean carriers are usually negotiating their main customers’ rates for the rest of the year. But we’re seeing some significant departures from “business as usual.”
Whereas many importers and exporters used to blend their agreements to a mix of about 85% contracted rate and 15% spot rate, last year’s experience is changing the way they do that. Instead, some are going half and half, or even majority spot/ad hoc.
There’s risk doing things that way (or any way, for that matter). If you lean heavily on spot prices, you’re essentially betting that the rates will drop below what you’d be able to negotiate today. On the flip side, those who lean heavily on contracted rates are betting that the spot rate is going to spike later in the year.
These organizations are reading their tea leaves and examining the state of the world while they make their decisions. Is inflation going to continue being a concern? Will the political state of play stay the same, or will there be some upheaval in key regions? Will consumer demand increase, drop, or hold steady? Will existing inventory hold long enough, or will you need to restock sooner rather than later?
Every industry, sector, and individual business will have their own way of looking at these types of things, each with slightly different aspects that will matter to them. The Recreational Vehicle industry, for example, will probably focus heavily on their expectations for consumer demand (which dropped significantly during Covid, but is starting to rebound). Meanwhile, the clothing industry might be more concerned about their existing inventory than demand.
Whatever the case is, you need informationbefore you commit to a strategy. We’ve always recommended working with a stable partner who will consult with you and all of the key players for your business, because that’s the right way to plan ahead. It’s extremely risky to make a decision unless you know the facts and consult with an expert. OL, as always, is ready to talk things over with you, give you the information you need, handle the negotiations on your behalf, and take care of all of the details for you.
Shipping and logistics are caught between the old and new industrial complex – but with several high-profile, high-tech capabilities, solutions, and implementations beginning to roll out en masse, 2023 is shaping up to be a major industry turning point.
This accelerated transformation comes on the heels of heightened global growth, touching every corner of the business. On the heels of pandemic-powered demand as consumers overwhelmingly shifted to e-commerce. This year alone, the industry is tracking to a 7.9% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), anticipated to be up $1.15 billion year over year – and that meteoric growth is showing no signs of slowing down.
While the financial gains are positive, they come at a cost. The boom in e-commerce has changed supply chain expectations from end to end, pushing those in the “last mile” to do more in less time with less friction, ensuring a better overall customer experience. It’s a tall order, especially in an industry deeply impacted by the labor shortage.
At the same time, these gaps and heightened expectations are inspiring new, cutting-edge solutions to ensure the industry can continue scaling – and many of those solutions are already being tested by some of shipping’s biggest players. The trickle-down to mainstream is inevitable, especially given sustainability regulations and other policies impacting the global and domestic supply chain. And that’s putting all eyes on what’s new, what’s next, and what we can expect in 2023 and beyond – starting here:
While still decades away, PepsiCo recently dove into decarbonization – and the impact on the entire industry could be significant. The global food and beverage manufacturer and distributor recently integrated its first patch of Tesla Semis. Designed to support heavy-cargo vehicles over long distances, these electric vehicles can charge 70% of its range – about 350 miles – in 30 minutes.
Supporting this fleet will be a national network of 1MW semi superchargers and solar-powered mega charger locations. PepsiCo’s latest electric semis can haul up to 81,000 pounds of cargo for 500 miles. In addition, Tesla’s semis offer a host of efficiency-focused smart features, including Autopilot for more comfortable driving, several sensors, cameras for safer, easier reversing, and low-speed driving, and an interactive Tesla touchscreen.
This initial test drive will be telling – for both PepsiCo and the entire hauling industry. At roll-out, the Tesla Semis will service two facilities only, Modesto and Sacramento. And while the 500-mile range is impressive, it’s still half that of a diesel truck, which can travel more than 1,000 miles on one refuel. To maximize distance per charge, electric semis would require more batteries, which would likely impact fuel efficiency.
Self-driving trucks could also help overcome human error, responsible for thousands of deaths annually while promoting greater efficiency – robot drivers don’t need breaks – and, with it, shorter delivery windows: an autonomous New York to Los Angeles haul could take as little as 48 hours, versus five days when led by a human driver.
While the technology has already been tested and adopted by several companies, including Uber Eats and Domino’s, the focus has predominantly been on short-distance deliveries. Likewise, Tesla has been testing self-driving semis since 2018, with long-haul options, according to Founder Elon Musk, coming soon. Also being explored: self-caravaning trucks, offering better driving and fuel efficiency, but with a human driver available to take over when needed.
Regardless of the format, self-driving technology is rapidly evolving, with an eye on becoming more and more mainstream fast. By 2027, the semi- and fully-autonomous truck market is expected to reach $88 billion.
#3. Automating every step of the journey
The recently added pressure on the global supply chain has pushed industry leaders to think big, leading to rapid advances in AI, IoT, machine learning, and data analytics.
Some organizations are already diving in, using AI to identify damaged cargo or to load and unload containers. Similarly, logistics leaders are starting to integrate machine learning technology to eliminate tedious but mission-critical tasks from their day-to-day operations. Demand forecasting models or demand sensing can be built to continuously learn and make relevant real-time decisions. This same approach can be used for inventory and warehouse management and even logistics management – tracking cargo locations from label creation through delivery – and fraud prevention, assessing large volumes of data, and looking for duplicate vendors or charges.
#4. Integrating big data analytics
Jumping off of the increased AI and machine learning capabilities, data and analytics will undoubtedly have a significant role in strategic planning and real-time rationalization industry-wide. By integrating smart vehicle technology and optimizing existing access and insights, logistics companies can streamline routes, better estimate delivery times, and spot potential hurdles, be it questionable infrastructure or unexpected slow-downs.
The good news: in most cases, companies already have access to meaningful data and analytics – it’s more about navigating the numbers to maximize value. Tap your fleet management and maintenance teams, HR, finance, and even the vehicles themselves and see what insights can be culled. With this multi-faceted view, it’s often easier to identify areas for system improvement.
This insights push will likely be supported by 5G network infrastructure and the mainstreaming of IoT devices. Together, this will promote more energy-efficient, cost-effective systems with end-to-end, cross-platform connectivity enhanced by IoT services.
With the rapid industry growth and acceleration, these high-tech solutions and capabilities have become increasingly critical to supporting scale, efficiency, and overall consumer experiences. By integrating more sustainable and, potentially, autonomous vehicles as well as deeper, actionable insights, shipping and logistics companies can elevate and accelerate their workflows and processes and better prepare to meet continuously-mounting expectations.
The reality? The logistics industry is notorious for stirring up less-than-positive environmental press. And considering a single Capesize Bulk Carrier uses 40-plus metric tons per day—and releases about 33,000 tons of CO2 in a single year—that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The global shipping industry generates about 4%-5% of the total carbon dioxide emissions created by human activity. It’s also a massive contributor to sulfur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Then there’s airborne pollution, especially around coastal areas and highly-trafficked ports.
While it seems black-and-white, moving to green logistics is more complex. Because while shipping and logistics are being pushed to “clean up,” it’s simultaneously hurtling towards another breakpoint as consumer demands skyrocket—especially when it comes to the retail supply chain. Pandemic time demands pushed the global supply chain to its limit and introduced consumers to the simplicity and efficiency of on-demand eCommerce. And there’s no going back.
That’s the critical balance: accelerating shipping and deliveries to satisfy consumer demand while considering the increasing environmental pressures of this growing industry.
Now, though, there’s a third consideration gaining momentum worldwide: cast-in-stone environmental policies set to transform shipping and logistics. From regulatory mandates to emerging tech best practices, the industry’s future and how cargo moves are under the microscope.
Your role, then? Understand the modern landscape with an eye on the complexities, controlling factors, and evolving environmental policies driving what comes next—specifically, the government, consumer, and industry-specific forces looking to define the way shipping happens.
1. Government Sustainability Targets
Underscoring much of the conversation are government regulations and emerging sustainability initiatives. Chief among them is the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Legally binding—and agreed to by 196 countries—this international treaty strives to keep this century’s global temperature rise to 1.5℃-2℃.
Considering carbon budgets, getting to a zero-emission state—which syncs with the Paris Climate Agreement’s global warming goals—is possible. But it requires an immediate shift to scaling new technologies, efficiencies, and alternative fuels. And that means allocating the resources, budget, and people power right now. Possible? Potentially—for some organizations. Others may need more time, support, and hands-on guidance to promote these transformation shifts.
Regulatory pressure is also coming from the inside. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been laser-focused on mitigating shipping emissions and reducing sulfur content in fuel oil. Per IMO requirements introduced in 2020, ships’ fuel must contain no more than 0.5% sulfur. Their experts argue that this will provide ongoing environmental impacts and public health benefits, including reductions in childhood asthma and lung cancer deaths.
2. Consumer Pressure for Reduced Carbon Footprints – and Greater Performance
Like government pressures, consumers are another key driving force behind changing environmental demands. Eighty-five percent of global consumers admit to evolving their purchasing behaviors, favoring more sustainable companies. They seek out businesses with clear-cut environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies and public roadmaps tracking their green goals—even from shipping and logistics providers.
91% of e-commerce customers want eco-friendly shipping options at checkout
More than half would pay an additional 10% for these green services
73% who indicated green behaviors aren’t important to them would still like to see sustainable shipping options
Respond To Mounting Internal and External Pressures
While these regulations and demands from consumers and employees inspire countless global conversations, there’s no one switch to flip. Transforming shipping workflows and best practices to improve sustainability must also consider methods for maintaining or improving service—and infrastructure durability.
We can’t compromise construction, deliverability, and design speed for short-term emission reductions. In the U.S. alone, shipments are expected to increase by nearly 24% by 2025 and 45% by 2040.
However, some organizations, ports, and governments are diving in head first, committing to significant investments in initiatives like “ports of the future” in France. Here, maritime, waterway, aeronautic, and land-based transportation come together to preserve space and environmental impact.
These ports are in-step with the French government’s own Stratégie national bas Carbone (National Low-Carbon Strategy), which seeks to curb industrial sector emissions by 35% over the next eight years, and 81% by 2050. Doing this means complete decarbonization in maritime transport—and, already, it’s posing a significant technological challenge, especially with maritime transport expected to increase by up to 40% during the same period. Total adherence to these environmental standards could leave the industry and key French players vulnerable.
Next Steps: What Should You Do Today – and Tomorrow?
By understanding the environmental pressures impacting shipping and logistics, your organization can better prepare for what comes next and how you can and should respond. Economic, political, and financial considerations will undoubtedly contribute to individual businesses’ moves to green logistics. But regardless of where a company falls, the next 12-24 months will mark a seismic shift in the industry as a whole—and that means all organizations and stakeholders must commit to rethinking processes, workflows, and operating models, with sustainability considerations in mind.
No matter your exact path forward, there are negatives and positives—and more than just environmental and public health considerations to account for. Done right, though, companies can strike a balance, making positive strides to better the global community—and their bottom lines.
Need help mapping out your next steps? OL USA can help. With both a big-picture global understanding of the current and emerging policies, regulations, and initiatives driving the future of shipping and logistics—and teams on the ground in key local markets—we can help navigate today and tomorrow. Let’s talk.