US Imports Help Fuel Strong, Long-Term LTL Growth

Author PhotoBlueGrace Logistics

JOC.COM
William B. Cassidy, Senior Editor
February 04, 2022

The US less-than-truckload (LTL) freight market is getting bigger, and not just because truckload and intermodal capacity are tight. Executives at publicly owned LTL companies say they see a long runway for growth from sources including containerized imports, and they donʼt expect to lose that freight even if demand softens and truckload and intermodal capacity expand.

“We donʼt have any volumes at this point to go back to truckload,” Greg Gantt, president and CEO of Old Dominion Freight Line (ODFL), said during a fourth-quarter earnings conference call Wednesday. “Most of those types of volumes are out of our network at this point,” Gantt said when asked about a modal shift. “I don’t see any volume going over to truckload at all. Not from our standpoint.”

If anything, LTL carriers need to expand their capacity to handle the additional freight they expect to hit their docks over the next few years. They will also need more port-facing facilities and services, if not a presence at ports, as more of their freight comes directly from international cargo before eventually entering the “middle mile” channel linking distribution centers and end users.

Shippers are unlikely to see a glut of LTL capacity that would reduce pressure on pricing anytime soon. Although ODFL, Saia, Estes Express Lines, and a few other large carriers have been adding terminals and doors, many others, including Yellow and TForce Freight, are shrinking their networks as they pursue improved profitability. XPO Logistics recently began adding terminals to gain better density.

Shippers say they increasingly turn to LTL to expedite freight when other capacity isnʼt available.“When bringing in a pallet of components by air cargo, Iʼm taking the international final mile to LTL,” Holly Pearce, director of logistics at battery manufacturer C&D Trojan, told JOC.com this week.“Iʼm using significantly more LTL carriage than in the past, when I would have waited for a full truckload.”

With customers demanding expedited delivery and truckload capacity tight, waiting is not an option.

“We have smaller order quantities. This influx of new buying activity is forcing freight to go to LTL simply because of the size of the shipment. Itʼs not just capacity overflow, itʼs consumer behavior.”

Consumer purchasing patterns that changed during the pandemic also push more freight toward LTL, Randy Ofiara, vice president of managed logistics at BlueGrace Logistics, said in an interview. “We have smaller order quantities. This influx of new buying activity is forcing freight to go to LTL simply because of the size of the shipment. Itʼs not just capacity overflow, itʼs consumer behavior.”

The shift in consumer behavior is much bigger than a shift of freight among modes, he said.

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