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The Tariff Takeaway: It’s Time to Stress-Test Your Supply Chain

After announcing earlier this month that 10% tariffs would go into effect Sept. 1 on $300 billion in Chinese imports, the U.S. reversed course this week and said duties would be delayed until December on certain products. The excluded items include cell phones, laptops, footwear and toys. In addition, other items will be excluded altogether because of health, safety, national security or “other” factors. While the latest news gives some businesses a reprieve, the continued uncertainty – and ongoing tariffs on many Chinese products – have left businesses struggling to mitigate the impact to their operations and their bottom lines.

To deal with the continued fallout, many shippers are exploring ways to reshore goods to other countries. In a recent fashion industry survey, 80% of respondents said they planned to cut back on production in China. But moving manufacturing operations comes with its own disruptions, putting added pressure on already stressed supply chains.

The road to optimization

Whether it’s blanked sailings during peak season, West Coast port strikes or the ongoing drumbeat of tariffs, anything that can go wrong in logistics likely will. Staying competitive in this complex environment requires not just addressing issues as they occur, but also anticipating and planning for whatever may lie ahead.

“It’s been very reactive,” AGL CEO Jon Slangerup recently said of the shipper response to tariffs during the Journal of Commerce Gulf Shipping Conference. “I think everyone is just coming to grips with how they are going to deal with this long-term.”

So how can shippers build supply chains that are more responsive – and predictive – in the face of disruptions? It starts with analyzing your processes, tools and people to find vulnerabilities and opportunities for improvement. Here are three steps to help your supply chain stay strong when disruptions strike.

  • Map out your processes. While many businesses are looking to technology to improve supply chain performance, new solutions are destined to fall short if you don’t understand your problem first. Take the time to map every mode, carrier and handoff point across your supply chain. Many businesses skip this step, but it’s the best way to uncover bottlenecks, find new efficiencies and tailor your technology around your processes.
  • Adopt the right technology. If you’re still running your supply chain on spreadsheets, you’re not alone: 13% of firms still rely exclusively on Excel for supply chain management, according to American Shipper. But to stay resilient amid supply chain stressors, businesses need a more sophisticated approach. A centralized platform can help you gain end-to-end visibility across all shipments, allowing you to pivot quickly when needed and spot trends that can impact performance.
  • Build a high-functioning team. The logistics industry is built on relationships, which is why it pays to cultivate strong ones. A supply chain partner with a deep network can help you navigate hiccups more easily, whether you need spot capacity fast or want to explore alternative production sites.

Supply chain disruptions are inevitable, but they don’t always have to turn into supply chain crises. A proactive approach is the first step toward supply chain optimization, helping businesses handle whatever comes next.

As Peak Season Looms, Here’s How to Prepare

Halfway through 2019, ocean shipping costs have already inched up for businesses, with many carriers locking in rates $200 to $300 higher per TEU than the 2018 contract season. While those rate increases have left businesses less than thrilled, they could actually benefit organizations as the season ramps up by stabilizing schedules and reducing blank sailings that wreak havoc on shipping schedules.

The question of how much shipping will actually ramp up is still unanswered, however. Imports have leveled off compared with last year as businesses rein in restocking, while a number of factors could prompt demand and rates to rise or fall in the coming months:

  • Ongoing tariffs: After last year’s huge spike in shipping to beat impending U.S.-Chinese tariffs, some businesses are taking a conservative approach to shipping to avoid additional increases.
  • Reshoring: With many businesses moving operations to Malaysia or Vietnam, Chinese import volumes have dropped 5% – and rates could be the next to follow.
  • Fuel sulphur cap: Vessels are already coming out of service to prepare for the International Maritime Organization’s 2020 rule capping fuel sulphur levels. Depending on how import levels play out this summer and fall, those capacity cutbacks could boost spot rates.

 3 ways to prepare for the peak

 For businesses with large global supply chains, preparing for uncertainty all year round is essential – and particularly important during the busy peak season. Combining the right tools, people and processes can help organizations navigate fast-changing conditions, operate more efficiently and ensure they’re meeting customer expectations. Here are three areas of focus to keep in mind:

  • Gaining end-to-end visibility. Purchase orders are notoriously difficult for businesses to track, creating ripple effects down the supply chain when milestones are missed. By adopting technology that offers insight into each step of the production process, businesses can plan effectively during the busy months and seize opportunities for efficiencies, like opting for a less expensive but longer route when products are ahead of schedule.
  • Delivering as promised. If a business books 10 containers but only delivers three, the carrier might not be willing to book 10 again next time. Respecting advance notice polices and forecasting accurately can help businesses build stronger carrier relationships – and avoid having to scramble for more expensive alternatives.
  • Make exceptions the rule. Seventy percent of businesses have experienced a supply chain disruption in the past year, and the peak season makes organizations even more vulnerable. When exceptions arise, a centralized technology platform can help businesses identify the issue quickly and make the carrier or mode adjustments needed to keep things running smoothly in the future.

With the state of ocean freight still uncertain in 2019, businesses that invest in the right supply chain technology and expertise will be well-positioned for whatever peak season brings.

Competing in a Consumer-Focused Age with an Agile Supply Chain

From a new couch to a week’s worth of groceries, shoppers can summon nearly anything to their doorstep, local store or delivery locker with just a few clicks. Some of the most significant consumer changes impacting supply chains include:

  • Shifting demographics. While in-store purchases still dominate among shoppers of all ages, younger consumers are continuing to migrate to e-commerce, underscoring the importance of a strong omnichannel supply chain.
  • Shifting buying patterns. Emerging trends, including subscription boxes and purchasing large-scale items like furniture online, are creating complexity and forcing businesses to reexamine their last-mile strategies.
  • Shifting technology. In a role reversal from the last few decades, consumers are pulling ahead of businesses when it comes to technologies like artificial intelligence. These tech-savvy customers expect connected yet frictionless experiences from their brands – forcing many businesses to play catch-up.

Increasing agility through technology

Faced with these pressures, business leaders recognize that agility will be the key to success in the coming years. A KPMG survey found that 68% of CEOs believe that being slow to adapt to change will lead to obsolescence, while Gartner revealed that 82% of CEOs intend to change their business models by 2020 to stay relevant.

For supply chains, a technology-enabled approach is essential to drive agility and keep up with consumer demands. According to a World Economic Forum analysis, digital transformation will generate $1.5 trillion in value for the logistics industry over the next five years. Among businesses that adopt digital supply chains, executives report a 3.2% average increase in annual earnings – the highest ROI of any business function.

As supply chain executives recognize the importance of technology investment, an analysis conducted by AGL and Logistics Trends & Insights found that total logistics IT spending will rise 17% to $87.8 billion between 2017-2022. Yet a data-driven, agile supply chain remains a dream for many businesses, with a significant number of organizations still relying on Excel and email to manage complex supply chain functions. For organizations that master digital transformation in the supply chain, the benefits are big – faster time to market, increased efficiencies and better customer experiences.

Improving Supply Chain ROI in a Tough Tariff Environment

After duties on $200 billion in Chinese goods jumped from 10% to 25% earlier this month, businesses barely had time to blink before receiving news of yet another tranche of tariffs. These duties would cover $325 billion in goods, hitting the price-sensitive apparel sector particularly hard and taking a significant bite out of business’ bottom lines.

While no timelines are available yet for the new tariffs, NRF is expecting “unusually high” import levels in the coming months as shippers scramble to beat the duties. In its latest Port Tracker report, the organization estimated that TEUs would hit 1.9 million in May – the first time ever TEUs have risen to that level before July. That surge in shipments could lead to another chaotic peak season and higher prices for shippers, who are already paying 20% higher ocean contract rates than last year.

Some businesses may also turn to more expensive airfreight to get high-profit merchandise like electronics into the country faster. And once goods cross the border, tight warehouse capacity on the West Coast could push up prices as well, creating additional supply chain pain. For businesses grappling with these issues, a focus on optimization is increasingly critical. Here’s how combining a technology-enabled supply chain with the right logistics expertise can help deliver ROI that carries you through whatever comes next.

  • Find cost-effective capacity. With ocean spot rates already 40% higher than they were a year ago, sourcing affordable spot capacity to beat impending tariffs is likely to be a challenge once again during peak season. A centralized supply chain platform makes it easier to compare carriers and routes to find the most cost-effective solution, while an experienced supply chain partner with a deep logistics network can give you extra leverage in negotiations.
  • Shift your sourcing. As the cost of doing business in China continues to climb, many of AGL’s own customers are weighing the pros and cons of moving to neighboring countries. A supply chain platform that offers an end-to-end view, from production to final destination, lets your business compare suppliers and make the right choice based on production and logistics costs, vendor reliability, and more.
  • Check your classifications. For businesses that haven’t reviewed their classifications recently, the latest round of tariffs is a good reminder to keep current. A centralized platform makes it easier to review classifications in one spot to avoid penalties and identify opportunities to substitute products not subject to duties, if possible. A partner with customs expertise can help find additional ways to save time and resources, such as improving auditing procedures.
  • Automate routine activities. A more efficient supply chain starts with understanding all the touchpoints across your operations and seeing where there’s room for improvement. By managing every shipment in a single platform, you can uncover those efficiencies more easily. Technology that enables management by exception, rather than reviewing every single shipment, can also free up significant time for large global importers.
  • React faster to disruptions. Supply chain disruptions are inevitable, but being able to make adjustments on the fly can help keep issues from ballooning into disasters. For example, when faced with fast-approaching tariffs, a technology-driven supply chain can help you decide whether shipping via airfreight or paying additional duties will ultimately be less costly.

As shippers prepare for more tariffs and a potentially wild peak season, investing in effective tools, people and processes can help offset the impact to their operations and their bottom lines.

Winning the Tariff Waiting Game

The last few months have forced many global importers into a holding pattern as they wait for the latest round of tariff headlines. The March deadline has come and gone for 25% tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods, and the U.S. administration has said that talks are going well with China, putting additional increases on hold indefinitely. The 10% increases imposed last year are still in effect, however, and the U.S. has hinted they may stay in place, even if the two countries make a deal. Meanwhile, trade tensions continue to flare around the world, with news of $11 billion in potential tariffs on European Union products surfacing earlier this month.

These ongoing uncertainties are having a definite impact on the $6.5 billion in goods that come through U.S. ports each day. After breaking import records in a rush to stockpile inventory last year, businesses have slowed their pace so far in 2019. U.S. ports handled 1.62 million TEUs in February, down 14.3% from January and a 4% year-over-year decrease.

While import volumes for April and May are expected to top 2018 levels, much will depend on the ultimate results of U.S.-Chinese negotiations. If tariffs do rise to 25% on some goods, many shippers will need to make major adjustments to their sourcing and transit strategies to stay afloat. No matter where duties land, however, the current environment is making businesses more aware of the power of tariffs to shape the economy – and the importance of customs compliance. Whether you have an in-house brokerage team or rely on external support, these strategies can help your business stay strong amid tariff uncertainty.

Go to the source. If your business has global production facilities, running what-if scenarios now can help you hit the ground running if massive tariff spikes require a shift in sourcing. An experienced supply chain partner can help you assess alternate transit routes and associated costs for moving production from China to Vietnam or Malaysia, for example. In addition, some shippers are turning to their vendors to handle clearance to mitigate the bite of tariffs – whatever those duties might be in six months.

Double-check classifications. While many classifications, like tires, don’t leave much room for interpretation, businesses should still review all their harmonized tariff classifications if they haven’t done so recently. A customs brokerage expert can help confirm all classifications are correct, so you’re not paying tariffs unnecessarily or putting yourself at risk for fines for missing duties. Depending on your goods, there may also be opportunities to adjust your sourcing to items that aren’t eligible for duties.

Stay on top of customs paperwork. Regardless of what the future brings for tariffs, the increased scrutiny on all U.S. imports is likely here to stay. Establishing a thorough auditing system can help your business avoid errors and fines, while cutting back on time-consuming post-summary corrections. Trading paper-based processes for automated systems can also help you improve compliance and overall efficiency.

While only time will tell whether more tariffs are in store, businesses that invest in a strong customs compliance program now will be better positioned to handle whatever comes next.

3 Strategies for a Smoother Ocean Shipping Season

Efforts by ocean carriers to prop up rates by reducing sailings last year came at the exact wrong time for importers, coinciding with President Trump’s announcement of additional tariffs on Chinese imports. As shippers raced to beat the effects to their bottom lines, imports hit a record 21.6 million TEUs in 2018 – and spot rates skyrocketed accordingly.

Just a few months into 2019, several factors are already keeping spot rates at higher-than-normal levels:

  • High import volumes: Demand for cargo space has remained elevated among shippers looking to beat additional tariffs, with January imports rising an estimated 4 percent over the previous year.
  • Trade uncertainty: While the March 1 tariff deadline has come and gone, continued back-and-forth between the U.S. and China make it unlikely that rates will drop anytime soon.
  • Bunker fuel costs: With carriers facing rising fuel costs and an impending 0.5 percent global sulfur cap on fuel content, shippers will undoubtedly see the effects reflected in their rates.
Navigating contract season effectively

As shippers enter contract negotiations, they will need to work with carriers to find a middle ground that balances cost with capacity to keep their supply chains moving. These strategies can help businesses lock in the capacity they need without compromising their budgets.

  1. Focus on total spend, not on rate. Trying to negotiate contract rates at the lowest possible level will ultimately wind up costing you more. Rather than trying to nickel and dime contract rates, focus on choosing a reliable carrier who will keep your shipments on time and on budget.
  2. Map your supply chain. Truly optimizing your ocean freight spend requires taking a critical eye to your supply chain. A centralized technology platform offers insight into every mode, carrier, shipment and more, so you can spot opportunities for improvement and make informed decisions during negotiations.
  3. Be ready for the unexpected. A provider with a deep network of relationships can be invaluable in accessing affordable capacity when disruptions inevitably arise. A little logistics creativity, such as changing the port of discharge, can also help lessen the impact of disruptions.

Want additional tips on managing ocean freight season without sinking your budget? Read our recent article in the Journal of Commerce, “Navigating 2019 ocean contracting.

Navigating Ocean Shipping in 2018 and Beyond

By its nature, ocean shipping is time-consuming: Average travel times from Asia to the U.S. range from two to four weeks, and documentations, customs, handling, and inland shipping can add up to 40 additional days. While many businesses plan their lead times with those schedules in mind, it’s the all-too-common unforeseen delays that throw shipping programs into chaos.

According to a report by SeaIntel Maritime Analysis, carrier on-time reliability plummeted 8.4 percentage points to 74.5 percent in 2017, with none of the top 18 carriers improving their 2016 performance. Carriers also often fail to inform shippers about delays [1], forcing businesses and brokers alike to monitor container status closely in attempts to minimize impacts to their own supply chains. Add in the fact that ocean shipping is inherently complex – Accenture estimated that the typical international shipment requires more than 20 documents – and the potential for errors and delays multiplies significantly.

Prepare for a Bumpy Ride

Driven largely by the ELD mandate that went into effect April 1, the trucking capacity crunch is creating additional slowdowns in ocean shipping this year. A shortage of trucks is forcing some ships to sit at port waiting for drivers and delaying docking for others. In response, some ocean carriers are charging as much as $300 per container fees [2] to offset the rising cost of moving goods on land once they reach port.

Ocean shipping volumes are also on the rise, clocking in 5 percent higher in December 2017 compared with the previous year, according to the World Trade Organization. While overcapacity on super-sized ships has kept rates steady, many ports can’t handle the new generation of massive ocean liners [3], making it more difficult to source capacity in some areas and creating congestion in ports that can receive these vessels. Factor in growing demand and ongoing trucking delays, and shippers could be in for a bumpy ride with ocean timelines and rates.

The 4PL Approach

So how can businesses keep their goods moving smoothly amid constantly changing ocean shipping conditions? Many are turning to the fourth-party-logistics (4PL) model, which puts control of all logistics information in the hands of one partner to improve visibility, information accessibility and responsiveness when things don’t go as planned.

By establishing a consolidated, technology-based supply chain with a trusted partner, businesses can:

  • Understand actual lead times (and plan accordingly). With ocean carrier timelines often less than reliable, a platform that houses all shipment information, regardless of carrier, can help you calculate historical averages accurately.
  • Resolve issues faster. Rather than relying on a carrier to tell you there’s an issue, a platform built on your business rules will alert you to missed deadlines immediately so you can make alternate arrangements if needed.
  • Negotiate more effectively. As ocean shippers add surcharges or stop door deliveries [4] in response to the trucking crunch, an experienced partner can leverage its industry relationships to minimize the pinch on your bottom line. A supply chain provider can also help you explore ways to optimize rates and capacity in the long term, such as attaining beneficial cargo owner status.

Ocean shipping is the linchpin of the logistics mix for many global businesses. With the right supply chain support, organizations can ride the waves that 2018 is likely to bring without compromising their budgets or customer satisfaction.


[1] “Shippers, forwarders adjust to sharp decline in trans-Atlantic reliability,” Journal of Commerce
[2] “Ocean carriers levy emergency surface fees, restrict door delivery,” Journal of Commerce
[3] “Onslaught of mega-ships to test US East and West Coast ports,” Journal of Commerce
[4] “Ocean carriers levy emergency surface fees, restrict door delivery,” Journal of Commerce