August 2008 | Commentary | IT Matters

E-Commerce Tools Can Speed Ocean Trade

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In the days before e-commerce, the only way to orchestrate an ocean container shipment was to call and fax every party to the shipment.

This world still exists, but it's fast being superseded by e-commerce tools that free shippers to manage supply chain risk and efficiently serve customers instead of chasing down details and coping with mismanaged shipments.

Technology tools can facilitate each of the four key steps of the shipping process:

1. Planning and optimization.In this phase, shippers are concerned with locating ocean schedules to offer tenders that will lead to bookings. The goal is to gather pertinent cost and lane information from a variety of carriers to refine the tender process.

Some electronic tender management tools claim to seamlessly coordinate the tender process, simplifying the ability to gather and analyze multiple bids from multiple ocean carriers. These tools rank price quotes by trade lane and carrier, instantly providing shippers the cost impact of carrier selection decisions.

Want to learn about ocean schedules? Many platforms serving the ocean trade offer full, Web-based listings of ocean schedules from a variety of carriers.

With this information in hand, it's possible to book electronically. Some tools enable shippers to request booking confirmations, track carrier confirmations, and monitor bookings throughout the entire cycle in one step.

2. Shipment execution. With electronic tools to handle functions such as shipping instructions, shippers can hold carriers accountable for documentation and ensure that instructions are accurate before a bill of lading is generated.

These tools support complex booking requirements and can automatically transfer shipping instructions into a bill of lading format for easy viewing. All parties to the shipment receive copies simultaneously.

Some e-commerce platforms serving the ocean container trade support a standardized process for viewing, editing, approving, printing, and archiving bills of lading. Users can print and share documentation with multiple third parties. As a result, shippers and forwarders receive their bills of lading faster and minimize container shipment delays.

3. Data visibility. No longer do shippers have to wait for the freight forwarder to relay information on a shipment by phone or fax. Shipment information is available electronically via the Web or desktop tools, in real-time or close to it.

Visibility applications, such as exception management, help shippers manage inbound and outbound ocean shipments. Shippers set alarms for shipment milestones - time to gate in, time to vessel load, time to gate out, and time to empty return - to quickly find and prioritize potential problem shipments.

Armed with this electronic data, shippers are able to follow up in time to recover, by redirecting stock from another location or shipment.

4. Reporting. In the past, developing quarterly reports and assessing carrier and freight forwarder performance was a major undertaking, involving collecting and manually analyzing data about all shipments.

Today's e-commerce tools automatically collect an online history that can be displayed with metrics and downloaded for analysis. To share data quickly and efficiently, the reports can be integrated into a shipper's workflow - one of the best ways to analyze and share information that would otherwise require hours to source and compile.

Shippers can join Web or desktop e-commerce platforms that eliminate the need to develop their own complex systems. But whatever channel they choose, they never again have to depend only on phone calls or faxes.

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