Are we the consumers, aiding the shipping crisis?

Two things we can all agree that have changed since Covid-19 first appeared, buying and selling habits have changed.  For a time, it all came to a rapid halt. Then consumers turned to online purchasing for pretty much everything, forcing producers to set themselves up for such purchases.  What we see now, is a continued growth in the purchase of goods, especially those that need international shipment.  But is our increased thirst for purchasing crippling the supply chain? 

Video 1: The shipping chaos explained 

Take the US for example, they recorded over 20% growth in April (vs April 2020 or 6,8% vs April 2019) in consumer spend, that’s a huge upturn in sale. Great for clawing back a much depreciated cash pot thanks to the pandemic, but it has also meant record low inventory and pressure on an already strained ocean container market.   

So whilst the ability to ship with confidence remains unprecedentedly low, the demand for shipping containers to pack and ready cargo for whatever voyage you can get, reaches an all-time high.

The largest share of that growth is concentrated to US demand. North American imports were up by 33.6% in the first four months of the year, reaching 10.9m TEU. Moreover, almost 70% of total North American imports are goods manufactured in Asia, which grew 45.0% from last year. I’m fondly referring to the US and Asia as the troublesome two now.  Both also struggling still with severely underperforming quayside operations, especially in Oakland and Yantian with a wait time for berth showing around 14 days. 

In April, only 39% of vessels were on time

For carriers, it’s all a big global balancing act.  Strong demand in one place, requires an injection of capacity and supply. But, this comes at the cost of taking it from another place.  At the moment, demand is growing everywhere, and due to container imbalances mainly between the troublesome two, and container production playing catch up, we’ve all become well versed in the consequences: 

  • Port and intermodal congestion 
  • Port omission 
  • Vessel delays 
  • Capacity shortages
  • Blank sailings 
  • High freight rates 

It’s an old saying that ‘when it rains, it pours’, and I think we’re all feeling pretty drenched right now. Here’s a shocking fact for you, in April, 2,1 million TEUs (8.6% of nominal container fleet) were missing, or more accurately, they were tied up in vessel delays.  That’s literally the equivalent of removing from the seas the entire global fleet of container vessels able to carry over 18,000 TEUs. For further context, last week there were about 300 vessels waiting to berth in Yantian port. 

15% to 20% of the global container fleet is ‘unavailable’ 

Until 2023, when new container vessels take to the seas, capacity growth is unlikely to meet demand. Costs are also unlikely to get better.  To give you a flavor of operational charter costs today, we’ve just seen a contract signed for the next few months at $148,000 per day! 

It’s really not looking good for the peak season ahead although some good news has come to light in recent days gone by; Suez Canal Authority (SCA) and Ever Given’s vessel owner have come to an agreement in principle over their pending compensation claim. Plus, Yantian port is reported to be back in full operational swing after clearing 21 consecutive days without new Covid-19 cases.

Video 2: Charting a course ahead

Our advice to our customers is to factor in more lead time to optimize the supply chain, hold inventory closer to sale where possible (ask us about our warehousing options), consider groupage services to move smaller quantities more frequently and air freight for speed and reliability.  


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