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10 Most Common Causes of Shipping Delays

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As an online seller or e-commerce business owner, having your shipments arrive on time is crucial for keeping customers happy and maintaining your reputation. However, delays are an unfortunate reality in the world of shipping and logistics. From weather disruptions to port congestion, many factors can impede that tracking update from switching to “delivered”.

Understanding the root causes of shipping delays can help you set realistic delivery expectations with your customer base. While some delays are unavoidable, being aware of these common issues allows online sellers and e-commerce stores to better plan inventory levels, communicate potential issues to customers, and make arrangements with carriers to minimize overall impacts.

Overflowing Ports and Terminals

Seaports and land terminals are major bottleneck points for moving cargo, and when these facilities get overwhelmed with container volume, major slowdowns can occur. During especially busy shipping seasons like summer or the holiday peak, terminals can simply run out of space and equipment to efficiently load and unload ships and trucks.

Getting back on track requires ports to implement storage fees and other measures to incentivize cargo owners to retrieve their goods quickly. But it still takes time to clear out the backlog. These kinds of port and terminal congestion issues have occurred globally over the past couple of years, notably impacting major port facilities around Los Angeles and Long Beach.

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Equipment Imbalances

Similar to overflowing terminals, an imbalanced exchange of shipping containers can cause transportation snags. Due to changes in consumer demand and trade flows during the pandemic, empty containers piled up in areas like Europe and North America, while Asian export hubs faced shortages.

Relocating these containers takes time, organization, and cost. If vessels, trucks, and trains don’t have the proper containers and chassis equipment positioned where they need it, shipping schedules fall behind.

Warehouse and Distribution Capacity

Capacity and labor shortages within logistics warehouses and distribution centers also contribute to delivery delays. Like ports, these facilities have been overwhelmed with skyrocketing e-commerce volumes lately.

From warehouse pickers and drivers to forklift operators and IT staff, these operations have struggled to scale up human resources fast enough to handle the scope of orders flooding through their infrastructure.

COVID Outbreaks and Restrictions

The COVID-19 pandemic has directly fueled many of the shipping capacity issues already mentioned. However ongoing outbreaks and containment measures also cause ongoing, unpredictable impacts to shipping timelines.

A single diagnosed worker at a port or distribution center can shut down a whole facility for sanitization. China’s “zero tolerance” lockdowns have frequently closed port terminals across the country after just one infection. These drastic but necessary safety measures continue putting temporary kinks in supply chain flows.

Labor Negotiations and Strikes

Labor union negotiations and strikes are an unfortunate reality across goods transportation industries like rail, trucking, shipping, ports, and warehousing. These disputes directly halt the workforce needed to keep ships, trains, and trucks moving.

For example, contract negotiations between shipping companies and West Coast port workers stalled in 2014 and 2015, resulting in major slowdowns across those crucial Pacific gateways. More recently, railroad and warehouse workers have gone on strike as unions push back against poor working conditions and overextension.

Extreme Weather Events

From sweltering heat waves to named winter storms, severe weather brings transportation to a standstill. Hurricane season routinely shuts down ports across the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard for days at a time. Snow and ice can make trucking impossible across northern trade routes.

And climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events. Shipping infrastructure simply isn’t designed to withstand the devastating impacts on roads, rail lines, planes, and vessels. It takes substantial time to resume operations, clear debris, and catch up after these storms.

IT System Disruptions

Like virtually all modern business operations, international shipping relies on high-tech computerized systems to coordinate complex transportation movements. So when cyber-attacks, technical glitches or human errors disrupt this technology, chaos ensues.

Shipping giant Maersk infamously suffered a worldwide terminal outage for nearly two weeks in 2017 after its systems were hit by the malicious “NotPetya” virus. Several major cloud computing outages in 2021 also halted key shipping and supply chain IT systems. Technical and digital problems can paralyze operations quite literally overnight.

Overbooked Vessels and Containers

In efforts to maximize efficiency and profits, ocean carriers and other transport companies sometimes oversell cargo space. They gamble that some shipments might be ready late or get canceled altogether.

But when actual cargo volumes exceed those projections, ships sail overloaded. Left-behind shipments have to wait longer for the next available vessel with space. Similarly, overstuffed containers can violate weight limits or legal over-the-road regulations, requiring partial unloadings and reloading onto other containers.

Route and Schedule Changes

Shipping companies regularly alter vessel and container routes and schedules based on cargo demand trends, fuel prices, geopolitical developments and more. Sometimes these adjustments are minor or have negligible impact on transit times.

But significant network shifts like omitting port calls or transitioning vessels to entirely different trade loops can greatly increase lead times for affected cargo. Changing vessel rotations and equipment repositioning add days or weeks of uncertainty to cargo delivery estimates.

Ship Mechanical Breakdowns

Despite all the technological advances in marine engineering, once in a while container ships still break down at sea. Severe mechanical issues like lost propulsion, electrical fires or even hull damage force vessels to divert to the nearest port for emergency repairs.

Offloading cargo, making fixes, reloading, and resuming the voyage to the original destination can add substantial unplanned transit time. A few highly-publicized incidents have left giant container ships stranded for many days awaiting rescue towing.

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Mitigating the Causes of Shipping Delays

Shipping delays remain an ever-present possibility for e-commerce businesses and online retailers reliant on freight transportation. However, understanding why these delays happen is the first step towards mitigating their impacts.

While some causes like storms and IT outages arise unexpectedly, staying informed about industry conditions can provide advance warning about potential issues like labor unrest, overbooked carriers, and shifting shipping routes.

Leveraging solutions like route tracking, insurance, hybrid transportation modes, and logistics outsourcing can all help e-commerce sellers smooth supply chain hiccups and provide customers with reliable deliveries despite whatever surprises arise.

So don’t let unexpected shipping slowdowns sink your e-commerce venture. Awareness of the most common delay causes combined with proactive planning is key for turning delivery snags into happy outcomes.


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