SHIPPING is the backbone of the world economy, facilitating international trade and globalisation with more than 90% of trade by volume being transported by sea, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Container shipping maintains a plethora of inter-relationships with both suppliers and customers to deliver a reliable service. The wide variety of intertwined services gives rise to the importance of integrated performance quality throughout the supply chain in container shipping.

High value but low volume
Containerships carry various types of cargo, usually of high value but low volume. Transport requirements, therefore, place more emphasis on factors such as timeliness, reliability and connectivity rather than only low freight rates. In other words, customers using container shipping tend to be more concerned with quality aspects of the service.

Factors that influence service quality in this sector include:

  • Physical resources (e.g. ships and containers);
  • Management effectiveness (e.g. shipping line’s efficiency);
  • Processes including interaction with shipping line’s staff;
  • Service outcomes (e.g. time and cost);
  • Image (e.g. shipping line’s reputation); and
  • Social responsibility (e.g. shipping line’s safety and environmental care).

Horizontal integration
Horizontal integration in container shipping, in the form of operational and service consolidation, has become widespread in the past few years, especially during the period of 2016–2018. This is happening not only in the main routes but also the regional/feeder routes.

While the top 10 shipping lines deployed 45% of container carrying capacity in 1996, the figure in 2017 stood at 70%.

The table below shows the top eight lines in the largest three alliances currently control about 80% aggregate global market share. In addition, according to UNCTAD, the number of container shipping lines providing services per country has declined by 38% on average during the period of 2004–2018.

Global market share controlled by the three dominant shipping alliances

Alliance Carriers Global market share Aggregate Share
2M Maersk 17.9% 33.5%
MSC 15.6%
Ocean Alliance COSCO – OOCL 12.7% 29.8%
CMA CGM 11.5%
Evergreen 5.6%
THE Alliance Hapag-Lloyd 7.2% 16.7%
ONE 6.8%
Yang Ming 2.7%

Impact upon customers
While consolidation can reduce overcapacity in the market, there have been concerns, raised by shipper councils globally such as the European Shippers’ Council and the Global Shippers’ Forum, that such consolidation will negatively affect container shipping lines’ customers.

McKinsey & Company in 2017 discovered from its extensive engagement with shippers that a remarkable amount of dissatisfaction exists, in which shippers found a “widening gap” between the service they want to receive and the one they actually receive, coupled with decreasing schedule reliability.

Similarly, the International Transport Forum reported in 2018, citing results from a Drewry study that transit times and reliability of booking were considered to have deteriorated since 2016, and that over 60% of respondents in the survey noticed deterioration in the range of different carriers available and over 40% observed a decreasing availability of different services. It was also observed in these reports that alliances can be generally associated with less choice, less service differentiation and less service quality for shippers.

The Australian context
There has been no research in Australia to examine how container shipping consolidation may affect service quality and its resulting impact on their customer satisfaction levels.

Maritime transport is critical to the country in that nearly 99% of Australia’s foreign trade in terms of volume go through our ports, according to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development figures of 2019.

To address this shortcoming, a qualitative study comprising in-depth semi-structured interviews of senior managers in freight forwarding/logistics firms who are in charge of operational transactions with container shipping lines, and representatives of peak bodies, was conducted earlier this year.

Key study findings
Arrangements such as slot sharing may limit the access of customers to shipping services as the capacity of the shipping lines is now spread across other alliance members.

A 3PL service provider illustrated this with the comment, “Space is a main issue. If they are not consolidating with other lines, perhaps 100% of the space of that vessel is for our customers, but now they are sharing with others, so some get more options while others will lose slots”.

It was also shown that freight rates may become more “stabilised” since larger but fewer shipping lines are now in the same alliance servicing specific shipping routes. Indeed, even when this is not legally permissible, alliances can influence pricing in terms of common surcharges applied in shipping routes and port areas within the alliance’s networks and service areas.

Meanwhile customers’ choice of shipping lines as well as negotiating power are both curtailed when dealing with alliances since there is reduced competition between shipping lines. This impacts negatively on service selection and risk management for customers as the differentiation between various shipping lines has been fading out.

The case of the Al Riffa and San Filipe collision and subsequent fire on both ships in November 2014 in Port Klang illustrates the depth of this concern. Only 15 containers of one product had been sent with one of the involved vessel operators by the manufacturer. It turned out that 98 containers of the manufacturer’s product were on the same vessel, although booked with different carriers.

Service quality impact
Negative impacts on service quality are felt in such areas as resources as customers may have less choice of ships and containers. Service outcomes are now increasingly becoming commodities and not much service customisation and differentiation can be provided due to the structure of alliances. There is also possible longer delivery time as fewer but larger shipping lines join lesser number of alliances, together with the deployment of bigger ships, meaning containers may have to wait longer so that the necessary load level can be achieved. This is especially true in the case of Australia as the majority of containers destined to Australian ports are for local import and export demands. A 3PL service provider commented, “When consolidating, the shipping lines instead of putting containers daily onto different vessels to spread them over Australia, it already annoys customers because the containers now spend one week longer than it should have to since they have to wait for each other”.

Loss of the “human touch”
The process aspect as a result of consolidation is the loss of “human touch” in doing business with shipping lines. This was pointed out by almost all interviewees. Since consolidation drives more efficient process through automation, often with less staff, customers who may have issues with their cargo cannot find someone in the shipping lines to talk to. When someone may be found, in many cases they are “very depressed, angry and grumpy”. This also leads to issues with the management of shipping lines which is vividly elaborated with the following comment: “Flexibility of shipping lines are limited because in some situations, their departments are far from the dock/port, which results in the fact that they don’t have experience to handle the problems. For example, their container load team is not at port, they are in Singapore”.

Final thoughts
Consolidation has given more negotiating power to shipping lines and lessened it for customers. In addition, service outcomes have become commoditised and less customised to each customer’s expectations. This may be different for big logistics service providers or consolidators who have large cargo volumes, people and systems capability to integrate their processes with alliances but the small shipper’s voice has become smaller through consolidation in container shipping.

* Vinh Thai is associate professor in the School of Business, IT and Logistics at RMIT. Devinder Grewal is a consultant at AISTL

This article appeared in the December 2019 edition of DCN Magazine