A look at regional parcel carriers

Apr 01, 2011 9:30 PM  By

When it comes to parcel delivery, FedEx and UPS are clearly the dominant players. But you can use regional carriers to supplement the service of the Big Two. In fact, if you haven’t evaluated regionals, you might be leaving money and value on the table.

Like the name implies, regional carriers serve a specific region within the U.S. These service providers are ideal for shippers with multiple distribution centers, especially if the DCs are aligned to the regionals’ delivery footprint.

Regional carriers such as Eastern Connection, Lone Star Overnight, OnTrac, Spee-Dee Delivery, US Cargo and others offer reliable parcel delivery services at rates as much as 40% less than national carriers. As a result, the larger, established regional carriers have been able to cut into the national parcel market share.

How have the regional carriers been able to successfully compete against formidable and deep-pocketed competitors in UPS and FedEx?

Many shippers will cite overall value proposition, including cost savings, consistent service performance and innovations that make it easier to ship with regionals. What’s more, regional carriers offer multiple delivery options that offer many benefits — including lower cost, flexibility and, in many cases, better service.

Lower cost

As a result of lower operating costs, regionals can often pass along to customers savings of 10% to 40% over UPS and FedEx pricing. Most regional carriers transport packages via truck hubs instead of airlines. Trucking can be as little as 10% of air costs.

Regional carrier pricing and contracts tend to be simpler and easier to understand than the national carriers. Most regionals have fewer accessorial charges than the nationals.

For example, many regionals do not assess delivery area surcharges, which are additional charges of $1.85 to $3 per package based on “rural” zip codes and affect 20% to 25% of all FedEx and UPS deliveries.

Shippers that have a high concentration of customers in a particular market should consider regional carriers in conjunction with less-than-truckload services. As an example, a shipper in St. Louis could take all its West Coast-bound shipments, truck via LTL to OnTrac’s hub in Reno, NV, and receive three- to four-day transit from the Canadian border to the Mexican border (Bellingham, WA, all the way down to Yuma, AZ). From Reno, that’s guaranteed next day delivery at Ground rates to a population of 50 million consumers.

Finally, many shippers leverage regional carriers to lower pricing with the national carriers. Competition enhances leverage, which is essential in any negotiation. Shippers may also feel more comfortable not putting all their eggs in one basket.

Expanded next-day delivery footprint

Since regionals concentrate operations in a well-defined geographic market, service to that market is often better than what the national carriers provide. For example, Eastern Connection handles East Coast deliveries from Maine to Virginia, all included as Zone 2. The same coverage with UPS and FedEx extends to five zones.

Many shippers find the wider next-day delivery footprint offered by regionals a competitive advantage. Imagine if you could offer your customers next-day delivery at a lower cost than what a competitor that charges for a three-day delivery.

Moreover, the regional approach often means later pickup times and earlier deliveries than the standard 10:30 a.m. service, improving both productivity and customer satisfaction.

Flexibility

Some shippers, frustrated with few national alternatives, report that regionals are not so much earning their business as FedEx and UPS are losing their business.

Shippers in a recent national survey cited annual rate increases, hidden “accessorial” charges, complex contracts, arrogant sales reps, invoice errors and poor claims processes as their top frustrations with FedEx and UPS.

Getting the nationals to be flexible can be a frustrating experience — even for multimillion dollar shippers. Merchants that make the switch to regionals often see a greater degree of customer service and accommodation.

As one shipper recently told me: “After getting very little attention from the national carriers, I now feel like a big fish in a small pond with my regional carrier.”

Other benefits

There are many other potential benefits to working with regional carriers. By bypassing national and multiple regional hubs, service can be more reliable in inclement weather. Some shippers reported lower damage rates with regionals, the result of reduced package handling. Regionals can often offer special services or make it easier to ship certain products like hazardous materials.

Exploring regional carrier capabilities and options

There are hundreds of regional parcel carriers, couriers and messenger companies. Not all regionals are qualitatively equal, and there certainly are downside risks to carefully consider.

First, consider the challenges of multisourcing. Relatively few shippers have 100% of their customers within a single regional carrier’s delivery footprint.

So the majority of shippers will need to continue to use national and potentially other regional carriers. That means multiple vendors to manage, different tracking systems, additional integration points, and so on.

Moreover, some of the smaller regional players may not have the support of parcel software vendors. Be sure to confirm that your manifesting system fully supports a regional before investing too much effort exploring it for your distribution.

Carefully review each regional carrier’s technology, tracking tools, web-based shipping systems, manifesting equipment, service coverage and transit guarantees. Few regionals have deep pockets to invest in infrastructure, technology, continuous improvement programs, etc., and find it hard to compete with the Big Two.

You’ll also need to confirm the financial stability of the company. While many of the larger regional carriers have been in business for decades, there are numerous examples of regionals (and national carriers) going out of business.

FedEx and UPS have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing brand and market awareness. Many regionals lack name brand recognition, a concern for some shippers that connect customer experience and “image.”

Many regional carrier drivers are independent contractors. Drivers at the smaller players, in particular, are not always uniformed, and vehicles may not be decaled. Again, a potential concern for shippers concerned about losing credibility over image.

Earlier, I mentioned that regionals might have an advantage in the event of inclement weather. Of course, the opposite is potentially true as well. If weather or other “acts of God” impair a regional’s ability to deliver packages, theoretically, shippers stand the risk of 100% of shipments missing service commitments.

Finally, many FedEx agreements and nearly all UPS contracts penalize shippers for diverting shipments to another carrier. If too much volume is bled to regional carriers, shippers stand the risk of losing discounts with the national carriers.

Of course, that’s exactly why FedEx and UPS build volume commitments into incentive programs. Shippers get locked in to a single carrier and are discouraged from looking at alternatives. Did you ever notice that additional incentives to hit higher revenue tiers are generally insignificant, while retracting to lower revenue tiers results in a significant loss of incentives?

Shippers need to understand that revenue thresholds, like incentives, accessorial concessions, etc., are negotiable. Refuse to be a rat stuck in the wheel of higher revenue thresholds. Give nationals and carriers the shipments that best meet your overall business needs, and negotiate achievable revenue thresholds.

Now is the time to evaluate regional carriers. Regionals can help shippers reduce costs, increase productivity and improve delivery times; and they can provide a competitive advantage. If you are unsure if regionals are for you, a number of industry resources, including third-party logistics providers and consultants, can evaluate your distribution and make recommendations as to whether regional carriers offer some benefit. Good luck!

Rob Martinez (rob@shipware.com) is president/CEO of shipping consultancy Shipware Systems Corp.

REGIONAL ALLIANCES FOR NATIONAL COVERAGE

An important industry development is the formation of “super-regional networks.” By forming strategic alliances with integrated software and package tracking, shippers can take advantage of coast-to-coast coverage in an arrangement that is transparent to customers.

The carriers within a regional parcel alliance, modeled in a similar way as recent LTL regional alliances, use a standard technology platform to control package custody from one carrier to another, and transmit online package status data to customers.

One such regional alliance is being formed between Eastern Connection, OnTrac, Spee-Dee, Lone Star, Skyline, TransTek and U.S. Cargo. Any of these companies can provide additional information about the alliance. — RM