Tuesday, November 19, 2013

XPO Finds "The Missing Link" in Big Box Home Delivery - Game Over?

Last week XPO Logistics (See other entries about XPO here) made what I consider a ground breaking announcement and acquisition: They acquired Optima Service Solutions.  If you remember, a few months ago XPO purchased 3PD which catapulted the company into the a leading position in big box (Think appliances, home exercise equipment, massive TVs etc.) home delivery.  It was a big and bold move to complete the supply chain (They already had services for inbound, redistribution and this gave it "final mile" capability) for XPO.

However, those of us who have been working home delivery (This was a major focus of mine at a major appliance manufacturer) have known for years that the big struggle in this space is in installation and service along with returns.  The biggest reason people shy away from internet purchasing of big items (for this example lets say a refrigerator) is because it is so hard to coordinate installation and, if something goes wrong, who do you call?  The acquisition of Optima by XPO solves that problem for home deliveries made by XPO / 3PD.

XPO will now have the capability to provide a seamless solution.  Before this acquisition the purchase of the refrigerator went something like this:

  1. You buy from an internet retailer who may or may not coordinate the delivery (some just give you a phone number to a LTL carrier and basically you are on your own). 
  2. The refrigerator is delivered to your curb (many will only do curbside deliveries).
  3. The driver may or may not help you unload (many LTL carriers will tell you that you have to unload the refrigerator yourself). 
  4. The driver leaves and now you and your wife stare at this new beautiful refrigerator sitting in your garage and your wife says to you, "What the hell are we going to do with that"?
Now think of the "new world" of big box deliveries (again, our fictional refrigerator) with the  integrated and seamless solution XPO will offer: 
  1. You choose an internet retailer specifically because they have the XPO / 3PD / Optima team as their delivery agent (Same refrigerator but this retailer is preferred due to the delivery mechanism).
  2. When you coordinate the delivery you tell them you want it fully installed and the installation is seamlessly scheduled for you.
  3. When the driver shows up to deliver the refrigerator the installation technicians arrive at the same time and they take over. 
  4. Your refrigerator is installed, icemaker tested, etc. etc. 
  5. You and your wife look at the beautiful new refrigerator where it belongs - installed and ready to be used. 
This is why this acquisition is so important.  The complexities of buying a big box item over the internet are lifted from the consumer and put where they belong - on the delivery agent.  No one has been able to do this better than Optima and now Optima is exclusively part of the XPO / 3PD network.  

Bradley Jacobs has, in one masterful stroke, accomplished two great things for his company.  First, he has given the company the ability to make a seamless end to end solution for home delivery all the way through delivery and service.  Second, and probably as important, he took the leader of this service, Optima, off the market for other home delivery agents.  Now, if you were a local home delivery agent and behind the scenes you were using Optima, you will no longer be able to do to that as Optima is exclusive to 3PD.  

This is the equivalent of a "Pick 6" in football.  Your great defense not only makes a great defensive play but it also scores a touchdown.  

The last frontier for potentially preventing people from buying big box items over the internet is now just returns - and don't bet against XPO in this space - they will figure it out. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rethinking The Core Carrier Strategy - Too Many Eggs in One Basket?

There are two sides of a continuum in procurement strategies for transportation.  On one end is full "auction" type purchasing where you put everything out to bid, almost constantly, and let the market adjust the prices.  On the other end is single sourcing where you don't bid anything and you partner with a core company.

Close to sole sourcing is a strategy called "core carrier".  This strategy has you limit your carriers to a "vital few" and then you work with them.  Sounds great however lately I have seen this degenerate to what is virtually a sole source strategy.  So, what is wrong with this and is it time to rethink it?  It appears Amazon thinks so.

As I wrote on Monday, Amazon is teaming up with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to execute Sunday deliveries.  Sounds great and the possibility of this occurring I wrote about back in 2012 but there may be more to this.   In The Wall Street Journal's "Heard on the Street" column (subscription required) they mention how this may actually be a strategic decision to ensure they have options beyond FEDEX and UPS.

In conjunction with their private fleet for grocery deliveries, Amazon appears to be diversifying and growing their options.  A real strategic risk for Amazon is they become so beholden to Fedex and UPS that they are controlled by them.  This strategy appears to be their attempt to counter that risk.

For the average shipper you should be thinking about this strategy as well.  Initially the idea of sole sourcing or core carrier sounds great - low administrative costs, one point of contact, easy to do business with.  Long term, however, you have to ask yourselves if you are turning the keys to the kingdom over to someone who many not have your best interest in mind.  No fault of their own but their interest will always be in the profitability of their company.   So, here are some actions you should be thinking about to protect the long term ability of your company to execute their strategy:

  1. Be careful on too much concentration in one carrier - especially intermodal
  2. Ensure suppliers know (and it is believable) that you have options in the market place.
  3. Be careful of tying systems together which are core to your business.  Beyond EDI, once their are unique systems integrations you are married (sometimes for life).
  4. Think about strategically propping some carriers up to ensure they are competitive.  Think about Amazon and the USPS.  Why go with what is essentially a bankrupt carrier?  Amazon wants to keep them in business and is going to help them.  You may have to do that with some smaller carriers yourself. 
  5. Keep options open with private fleet.  By running a private fleet you will know as much or more about running a fleet than your suppliers.  Keep that as a competitive advantage. 
As always, there is a lot to learn from Amazon.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Behind The 2.5% GDP Number.. Not So Fast

The initial read on Q3 GDP seemed pretty impressive at 2.5%.  That would indicate things are moving along and creeping up to the 3% "benchmark" everyone is waiting for.  However, like all things, there are the numbers then there are the numbers.

I had heard on NPR that the inventory numbers seemed elevated so I did some quick research and sure enough it appears that at least .5% of the GDP number was due to the growth in inventory. Of course, making things and throwing them in warehouses is not a driver of growth.  It is more like a ponzi scheme.

Forbes said the following:
"When you remove inventory accumulation and external trade, explains Capital Economics’ Chief US Economist Paul Ashworth, you get a slowing 1.7% growth rate of final sales to domestic purchasers. Ashworth calls this less impressive metric “a better gauge of underlying economic strength.”

What are the implications for shippers and transporters:

  1. The economy is not growing like the front page numbers may imply.  Things are sluggish for the most part with some strength industries - although those are not big freight industries.
  2. Due to the growth in inventory, there has been a "pre-positioning" that will have to bleed off.  This means, at some point, inbound freight will slow down dramatically waiting for the inventory to be sold. 
  3. Nothing indicates freight will speed up.  This slow freight environment which means demand is decreasing at least as fast as supply will be the "new normal" for at least one year. 
Everything I read and see says this slow "new normal" freight environment will go through 2014 at a minimum.  

Lesson:  Always read "behind" the numbers. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

United States Post Office and Amazon - Sunday Delivery in NYC

Sunday delivery was inevitable (USPS and Amazon team up) and I have talked about this a few times.  In an article titled "Home Delivery Lockers at Wal-Mart" I discussed how Amazon might be able to team up with UPS to fight the "Clicks and Mortars" advantage of Wal-Mart.

But buried in that article I said the following:
"Of course, there is still partnering with the Post Office (interestingly UPS has already started doing in the sustainability space) which I think makes a lot of sense."
I also said that the United States Post Office could be the big winner in the fight for immediate home delivery as they already have a 6 day per week infrastructure to make this happen.   I wrote an article over a year ago titled: "Could the Post Office Be The Big Winner in Same Day Delivery?"

It appears they have, at least in NYC, started to win this battle.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

State of Transportation - XPO Logistics

I have reported on XPO logistics  (Follow this link on XPO to see all my thoughts) a lot as it fascinates me how a company comes out of nowhere and becomes so large so fast.  It also amazes me just how much money a company can lose and still be wildly successful (think Amazon.com).  But, since I am not a financial person I trust Bradley Jacobs understands these financial rules and is using them to his advantage.

The real reason I listen to their calls every quarter is no CEO I know of is as honest, direct, and has as much just common sense as Brad Jacobs.  I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with him a few weeks ago and for someone who has done as much as he has, he really is a down to earth person who knows this business well (especially for someone who is relatively new to the brokerage business) and, something that is refreshing, he is very upfront and honest.  So, listening to what he has to say about the industry is very interesting.

On this quarter's conference call he said three things which really were insightful on the market and match what I have said relative to telling shippers not to engage in the fear trade.  Here they are (Paraphrase):

  1. This is a lousy business environment for brokerage companies due to the fact that shippers do not have much of a problem finding trucks.  The reason for this is the market is balanced at best case (for transportation providers) and may even be edging to the shipper.  The shipper has no problem finding trucks (except for unique and specific lanes). 
  2. XPO is able to find trucks and is able to "clear their board" relatively early in the day so it is pretty clear that trucks are available.  
  3. This is probably the most important: When he was asked if he is seeing any issues with Hours of Service or other regulatory issues he clearly said no.  In fact, he said that the one thing which he hears most is just the transportation companies complaining about it.  
My mind is not made up on brokerage in general or XPO for the long haul.  I still wonder why good transportation departments need a "middle man" but I know there are reasons - I always think of them as back up capacity - but people do use them for their core transportation.  The dream of the internet was to eliminate the "middle man" yet in this space the middle man seems to be growing.  

Having said all that, I listen to the XPO call every quarter as you can learn a lot about what appears to be a strong emerging company and the industry in a very straightforward manner. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Fear Trade Picks Up Steam - Don't Be Fooled

One of my favorite songs from childhood is "Won't Be Fooled Again" by The Who and this is my theme for what I have called the "fear trade" in transportation.  This is the time of year when people put their freight out to bid and as expected, and right on queue, some of the major transportation providers are putting out press releases and other statements to start the fear trade - make shippers fearful that truck capacity is magically disappearing and that trucking companies are suffering.

As reported in LogisticsViewpoints, both Schneider and Werner have, on queue and somewhat coordinated, put out press releases and statements saying there is a big problem with capacity, productivity is down and the big bad regulations are making it hard to run their business.  This will, I predict, be echoed by many others over the next few days.  All while earnings at the best run trucking companies are better than they have ever been and OR rates are at record levels (the REAL data in their annual reports).

These statements, of course, are designed to create the fear trade and to get the shippers to buy into a "fear premium" as they go into bid season.  Now, for the real data:

Using CASS data from the October report we see that both expenditures and shipments are down year over year.  In fact in 7 months of 2013 we have seen shipments down year over year which indicates, as CASS rightfully points out, that the economy is slowing and the shippers are finding alternative ways to deal with transportation problems (i.e., network redesigns, packaging, better inventory management etc.).  During these turbulent times it appears shippers have rolled up their sleeves to find innovative ways to solve transportation problems and it appears the transportation industry is issuing press releases.  The graphs below tell the story:

As I reported recently, I told my readers not to overreact to the numbers from September.  They were too strong to be sustained and if you see any other economic indicators you will know that strength was not supported by the underlying economy.  And, this month we find that to be accurate.  They were not supported.

Another interesting statement out of the CASS reporting was that for the first time since 2008 the National Retail Foundation is forecasting a decrease in holiday sales by 2.5% and this is supported by the less than robust holiday stocking.

For sure I am not saying to ignore capacity - if you claim the world is going to end and you live long enough, sooner or later you will be right.  However what I am saying is three-fold:

1.  Let the data speak.  Don't get wrapped up in the fear trade.  Watch this blog, watch the CASS information, watch macro economics and, of course, watch your own sales as a shipper.  These are the most telling indicators.

2. Look at your network and understand your network relative to freight flows.  I have said it many times that transportation is not a homogeneous network.  There are specific lanes (Northbound out of Mexico as an example) that are always under stress.  However, if you ship westbound you should be getting great deals almost always.

3. Understand that there is another side of the equation and that is demand.  Shippers have done an incredible job of productivity enhancements through packaging, product design, loadability studies, and network design which has allowed them to service their customers with higher quality goods at lower costs and lower transportation requirements.  There is no reason to think this will stop.

So, in conclusion, do not get caught up in the fear trade.  Do not think you need to pay a premium now as an insurance policy against future capacity.  One thing is for sure, capacity will flow to where the margins are and even if you pay more now it will not ensure future capacity.  If you pay a premium now you will be in a "Pay me now AND Pay me later" scenario.

Stay calm, stay focused and keep reading the data.

And now, enjoy the Who and Won't Get Fooled Again: