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With Imports on the Rise Once More, Is it Time to Invest in Supply Chain Visibility?

December 8, 2023

For months, U.S. media outlets have lamented low imports, a sure sign of consumer reluctance and a forebearer of doom and gloom throughout the transportation sector. Recent import numbers, however, seem to promise better times ahead. In this article, we’re going to be diving into the data behind U.S. import forecasts, the challenges that good times can bring, and three end to end supply chain visibility strategies to prepare for the coming uptick in imports as the industry returns to pre-pandemic norms. 

Rising Imports Show Upward Trajectory Along Pre-Pandemic Norms

After months in the doldrums, preceded by the COVID-19 era shipping boom, US container imports are on the rise. What’s notable about this increase isn’t the total amount of containers now entering US ports, which is far less than during the COVID-19 shipping boom, but rather the trajectory of that increase. According to reporting from FreightWaves, the first nine months of 2023 saw U.S. imports trend 2.5% higher than the same period in 2019. Additionally, this time period saw import rates trending 4.6% higher than in 2018, and 11.4% higher than 2017. In September alone, US import levels were up 8% over 2019’s levels. 

For the transportation industry, this steady increase in comparison to historical import volumes reveals a welcome sign: the elevated imports of the pandemic-era shipping scene have passed, and import rates–recently seen as stagnant–have returned to a more predictable upward trajectory. 

This change can be seen not only in general import trends but in port volumes, too. At the Port of Los Angeles, which saw significant declines in volume in recent years due to the now-resolved negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, import volumes are now beginning to trend in keeping with historic, pre-pandemic data. “September was another good month, with imports up 14%,” said Gene Seroka, Executive Director at the Port of Los Angeles, “With a long-term dockworker contract in place, we’re seeing more cargo shifting back to Los Angeles. The table is set to scale up as demand increases.”

From coast to coast, volumes are increasing at American ports and the effects of several chaotic years are beginning to wane. With the return of normalcy, however, comes the return of crowded ports, difficult intermodal collaboration, and high-stakes drayage operations. Facing these challenges, shippers are turning to technology to ensure streamlined operations as the freight industry shows the first signs of a return to normalcy. 

Challenges Posed by Rising Imports

While a return to normalcy may indicate sunny skies ahead for some in the transportation industry, for others, it reinforces the need for reliable strategies to build efficiency in chaotic supply chain environments. Let’s dig into three challenges that can result from rising imports.

Congestion at Ports

As imports rise, so too does congestion at ports. Congested ports can lead to significant delays in container throughput. These delays can have an immediate impact on the profitability of a business's operations, forcing shippers to pay for significant port fees, including demurrage and detention. 

Intermodal Capacity Constraints

Rising imports can take a toll on the vast intermodal transportation system, causing congestion at inland ports and flooding rail yards with containers. At the Northwest’s busiest seaport, Seattle-Tacoma, a shortage of rail cars is responsible for a delay of 8 to 12 days, according to a recent report from ocean carrier Hapag-Lloyd. While these intermodal transportation hubs play a vital role in the containerized transportation sector, shippers often lack visibility over this segment of a container’s journey, forcing them to incur costly inland port fees as they wait for railcars to provide transportation to the next stage of the logistics process. 

High-Stakes Drayage Difficulties 

Drayage acts as a vital linchpin in the complex process of containerized transportation. However, despite the necessity of drayage, it is often overlooked by shippers when they’re considering strategies to optimize their transportation methods. Without adequate insight into the drayage process, rising imports can quickly leave shippers struggling to find vital drayage capacity for high-stakes containerized shipments. 

As Imports Rise, Shippers Invest in End to End Visibility

With these challenges in mind, it’s clear that for containerized transport, something has to change in order to keep pace with the rising influx of imports into U.S. ports. As a result of this pressure, shippers are increasingly turning to end to end visibility as a means of bolstering container management in a new import landscape. 

For years, shippers have struggled to build effective end to end supply chain visibility. “Supply chain visibility is only effective if the data is complete, accurate and timely,” a commodities shipper recently told The Journral of Commerce. “The data is poor, so the amount of time spent chasing false negatives detracts from the productivity of our operations group.” This lack of effective, standardized data may be one explanation for why, despite a clear and present need for end to end visibility, half of shippers have no visibility into their ocean freight shipments, according to reporting from Supply & Demand Chain Executive.

Shippers, face a serious problem as imports begin to trend upward on their pre-pandemic trajectory: more than ever, they need effective, data-driven end to end supply chain visibility.

By partnering with an end to end visibility provider that prioritizes data quality across ocean and rail, shippers can build the true end to end supply chain visibility they need to remain competitive in an increasingly bustling containerized environment. By employing three strategies, shippers can ensure that their supply chain is ready for a steady influx of containerized imports. 

Three Strategies for Effective End to End Supply Chain Visibility

As imports continue to rise along their pre-pandemic trajectory, shippers need more than basic supply chain visibility. Instead, shippers need to leverage true end to end supply chain visibility as a means of breaking down tech silos and ensuring maximum efficiency and resilience in all containerized transportation. 

Let’s look into three leading strategies shippers can use to optimize container operations as imports rise. 

Real-Time Container Tracking

As imports flood into ports, the prospect of ensuring a smooth and steady throughput grows increasingly more daunting for shippers. By leveraging a fully-standardized data set, sourced across all carriers and data sources, shippers can more effectively navigate these congested ports with unparalleled insight into dwell times and throughput. Paired with real-time container tracking, this unparalleled understanding of containerized operations at a given port provides shippers with the flexibility they need to ensure maximum resilience and efficiency at crowded container hubs throughout their supply chain. 

Automated Notifications for Maximum Awareness

In today’s fast-moving supply chain, crises can strike with little notice. Often, these black swan events can lead to significant down-chain consequences, resulting in port fees, late shipments, and, ultimately, unhappy end customers. Increasingly, shippers are turning to automated exception alerts as a means of navigating these high-stakes container emergencies. With automated notifications across a shipper's transportation network, shippers are made instantly aware of the latest events in their supply chain, including blank sailings, vessel delays, demurrage, and last free day.

Leveraging Intermodal Container Tracking

Smart shippers know that the need for visibility doesn’t end with the maritime transportation process. That’s why shippers are increasingly demanding true end to end supply chain visibility. With intermodal container tracking, shippers can keep track of high-value containerized shipments as they move from ocean to drayage to rail. With the data garnered from intermodal container tracking, shippers can gain the end to end supply chain visibility insights they need to navigate an increasingly congested transportation landscape. 

As The Market Returns to Normal, Shippers Turn to End to End Supply Chain Visibility

With import rates signaling a return to pre-pandemic norms, it’s time for shippers to reinvest in their supply chains. With true end to end visibility across all containerized operations, shippers can access data-driven insights across every level of their containerized supply chains. Armed with this information, shippers can then make the difficult supply chain decisions needed to stand out in an increasingly crowded supply chain ecosystem. With end to end supply chain visibility from OpenTrack, shippers can access an invaluable array of software assets:

  • Intermodal Visibility (Inland Rail) offers shippers insight into the often overlooked inland portions of their supply chains, providing new opportunities for optimization.
  • API & TMS Integration ensures that shippers can optimize existing tech stacks without starting from scratch. 
  • White Label Customer Portal allows businesses to leverage the latest in end to end supply chain visibility without sacrificing brand identity.

Book a demo with OpenTrack, and see how end to end supply chain visibility can help optimize your operations today. 

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