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Outlook for LTL in 2021: A Pressurized Sector

The height of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to close their doors, in some cases for good. In March and April, during the early days of the “shelter in place” order and red phase, the less-than-truckload (LTL) sector saw a considerable drop in volume, as much as 20 percent.

 

Within a few months, freight volumes rebounded quickly, leaving carriers struggling to move freight.

Trucking firms, in an effort to keep their own doors open, issued extensive layoffs to compensate for the loss of business. However, within a few months, freight volumes rebounded quickly, leaving carriers struggling to move freight. So much so that some companies had to turn away new business in favor of trying to hire new drivers.  

“All the carriers I talk to are looking for another 100 to 500 drivers,” Satish Jindel, president of transportation research firm SJ Consulting Group, said in an interview with the JOC. “The trucking industry is short 2,000 or more drivers just on the LTL side. That tells you demand is robust. This is a great time for the whole industry and LTL carriers should be operating better in this environment.” 

It is indeed a profitable time for LTL carriers, especially as the demand for e-commerce continues to swell. XPO Logistics, the third-largest stand-alone LTL carrier in the United States, had to lower its adjusted LTL operating ratio to 79.7 percent in Q3, while Old Dominion Freight Line, the second-largest LTL carrier company, lowered their’s down to 74.5. This means that these carriers saw operating profit margins upwards of 25 percent, while most publicly owned LTL carriers are working with operating margins below 10 percent.  

“If XPO and ODFL can do this, there’s no reason others should not be able to,” Jindel says. “The LTL industry should be printing money right now; demand is exceeding capacity.” 

As with other modes of freight transportation, LTL contract rates will continue to climb, but not at the same rate as truckload pricing. LTL shippers and carriers should be expecting increases to remain in the mid to high single digits, whereas FTL freight is seeing double digits. As LTL volumes continue to rise, freight pricing will continue to stay steady throughout the year.  

Jindel said LTL operators “need to get their finances in order so they can reinvest in what’s going to be needed” in 2021. This means hiring more drivers, ordering new equipment, and investing in new technology.  

 

Beware The Bottlenecks

As it stands, capacity is tight, regardless of what mode a shipper decides to use, be it LTL, FTL, drayage or intermodal rail. Shippers are struggling to find the right fit for their freight needs, even more, to make sure the customer receives that freight on time.  

 

While the increase in demand makes for lucrative contracts, an overabundance of capacity is just as bad as too little if there isn’t enough equipment to move it.

While the increase in demand makes for lucrative contracts, an overabundance of capacity is just as bad as too little if there isn’t enough equipment to move it. This is being seen it two distinct problems. The first being the pervasive driver shortage in the United States. There simply aren’t enough drivers to fill the number of open seats behind the wheel, which leaves carrier companies competing over the same limited resource.  

The second issue is the amount of time it takes for a trailer to be unloaded. With the massive influx in demand, most big-box retailers are getting more trailers in faster than they can be unloaded, which is problematic. As most LTL carriers have a limited amount of equipment, every trailer that is tied up, waiting to be unloaded, shrinks the total amount of available capacity. 

 

Shippers Need To Start Planning  

Despite the vaccine rollout, there is no telling how much longer we will continue to experience COVID-19 restrictions. This means that pressure on LTL prices will continue, which could affect shipping budgets.

Unfortunately, due to how turbulent and unprecedented 2020 was, data from years prior is of limited help, shippers will basically have to figure out their shipping budget on the fly this year as we continue to navigate uncharted territory.

 

As e-commerce demand continues to grow, it is likely that many shippers will continue to see delays in their deliveries, which could be problematic if operating under tighter deadlines or restrictions such as OTIF policies.

In addition to higher prices, shippers will also have to factor in delays, as many carriers are struggling to keep up with the workload. As e-commerce demand continues to grow, it is likely that many shippers will continue to see delays in their deliveries, which could be problematic if operating under tighter deadlines or restrictions such as OTIF policies.

While capacity will remain a challenge, shippers do have some options available to them. One of the best methods is to work with a third-party logistics (3PL) provider. As a leader in LTL, BlueGrace can help you to find the capacity you need when you need it. Contact one of our experts today to get a quote on your next shipment.