Coming off a year that found both carriers and shippers struggling to piece together logistics and transportation strategies in an extremely disruptive environment, many companies came into 2021 with the hope that things might get easier in the New Year.
The first quarter of 2021 promises to bring much of the same volatility and uncertainty to the small parcel rates and capacity environment . With the holiday season behind us, many service providers are now fully entrenched in a worldwide vaccine distribution effort in a shipping environment that was already more expensive and capacity constrained than it was a year ago.
Here’s what all shippers should know as we move out of the chaos of 2020 and into a New Year that promises even more challenges - and opportunities! - for parcel shippers.
Small Parcel Capacity Lessons Learned from the Holiday Season
The 2020 holiday season was like no other. Record volumes of e-commerce orders pushed major small parcel carriers to levy new fees while also capping volumes in order to balance their networks. Affecting ground, express, and postal service, very few shippers escaped the impact.
“As Americans increasingly shop online because of the coronavirus pandemic, private express carriers FedEx and UPS have cut off new deliveries for some retailers, sending massive volumes of packages ordered past deadlines to the Postal Service,” the Washington Post reported.
With capacity at a premium in the small package environment, shippers were left to their own devices when it came to getting their goods out the door and monitoring the cost and service impacts. We were called upon to help many companies as carriers took a brutally honest approach and let everyone know that they were buckling under the strain.
“We’re really gridlocked all over the place ,” a Postal Service manager told the Washington Post. “It’s bad. I’ve never seen it like this before.”
Navigating the Perfect Small Parcel Storm
With carriers implementing caps in order to avoid being overwhelmed (or completely collapsing) and volume congestion riddling networks nationwide, shippers had to swallow a bitter pill: meeting consumer expectations for next-day or two-day service wasn’t happening. Shippers with contingency plans in place going into the holidays fared best as elections and vaccine distributions claimed an extraordinary amount of parcel and mail shipping capacity during the fourth quarter of 2020.
As with any crisis, there are always lessons to be learned. If 2020 taught shippers anything, it’s that it pays to listen to your small parcel carriers . Pay attention to their market moves and announcements, and then factor those insights into your overall transportation planning. We saw a similar uptick in awareness levels in 1997, when a 13-day UPS employee strike crippled the nation’s parcel network.
Fast-forward 23 years and COVID-19 had a similar impact - albeit more sweeping and longer in duration - on an industry that now includes multiple parcel carrier options. This time around, we saw that companies capable of distributing their shipping volume across FedEx, UPS, DHL, the USPS, and other providers (versus relying on just one) fared best during the 2020 holiday season.
Moving forward, smart shippers will continue to integrate flexible tactics into their supply chain planning, knowing that a “squeeze” on one end of that value chain will equate to a diversion at the other end of that sequence. This is where regional carriers and last-mile delivery services are helping to pick up the slack and, as a result, are now being taken more seriously than ever before. We expect this trend to continue in 2021 as companies shore up their transportation plans and work to avoid the challenges of 2020.
Small Parcel Network Visibility is the Key
Even with the vaccine distribution, COVID, and other outside forces impacting the small parcel landscape right now, we do expect a competitive, more rational, parcel shipping landscape to emerge later this year. We could see a retreat in surcharges and other extra fees, but only when volume begins to wane and the environment starts to normalize. We also expect more competitors to enter the parcel marketplace and grab some of the opportunities that the larger carriers are overlooking right now. As this takes place, shippers should get some benefit from the heightened competition.
Regardless of the current small parcel shipping environment and the challenges that it’s inflicting on shippers and end customers, supply chain visibility continues to rise to the top as the ultimate combat tool. In an environment where next-day and two-day deliveries are the norm – and where these options are getting more expensive – the company that understands its total shipping costs is the one that will be best equipped to offset the “perfect storm” of capacity constraints, rising rates, and surcharges.
A critical tool for any market conditions, supply chain visibility includes all aspects of your transportation network—from the time the goods leave the loading dock until they reach their final destination, and all points in between. “The COVID-19 pandemic has moved supply chain and logistics technologies to the public eye like few times before,” Crunchbase states, “as shortages at grocery stores and the distribution of a possible vaccine highlight the importance of moving goods and essentials.”
End-to-end supply chain visibility also helps companies pinpoint areas of concern (i.e., is fulfillment causing the delay?), and address them quickly. It also gives shippers accurate insights into carrier performance and enables good decision-making on that front. Transportation Insight, for example, breaks down the data by geographic region and individual carrier to come up with the best possible options for shippers.
In other words, we’re not just throwing information over the fence to our customers; we take a highly consultative approach that helps companies shape successful supply chain strategies in any market conditions. As we move further into 2021, expect new parcel shipping opportunities and challenges to emerge. Those companies that align themselves with a knowledgeable, tech-enabled logistics partner will be best positioned to leverage these opportunities and circumvent the challenges.
Tap into our team’s insight to support your freight and parcel management practices. Download our Q1 ChainLink 2021 for multi-modal trend forecasts and cost impact analysis. Read it today for supply chain strategy guidance, as well as the latest changes in truckload, less-than-load and small parcel transportation.
For more detail, listen to our SME Roundtable discuss transportation trends in our latest digital event.