Matchmaking

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Shippers, like love-scorned romantics, are willing to try almost anything to find a bigger pool of suitors and more capacity. Carriers, by contrast, are continually looking for ways to get the most out of their freight dates while avoiding costly deadhead rendezvous.

Online 'freight dating' addresses both concerns. But finding the perfect match requires time and proper due diligence. Even then, a certain amount of intangible chemistry, and even luck, can make or break a successful partnership.

Many shippers are resigned to using brokerage companies to help secure capacity, negotiate rates, and take care of the legal wrangling sometimes involved in contracting cargo to carriers.

But as transportation costs soar and transport buyers find equipment availability increasingly tight in capacity-constrained regions—especially in the wake of last year's hurricane season—they are compelled to think outside the box and look inside the worldwide web to find alternate solutions.

If you're among the skeptics who think online freight-matching services are almost as foolish as their human counterparts, you're not alone.

"Moving freight is not most transport buyers' core business; they usually buy or outsource that service. They can, of course, do it themselves, but do they really want to?" asks Steve Gabrielson, president, Direct Freight Services, an online freight-matching site.

Breaking the Mold

Shippers have been slow to make the jump to online freight-swapping portals, while carriers, owner-operators, and brokers are frequent users. To break the mold, Inbound Logistics went undercover as a transport buyer to check out the Internet freight date scene, and offer advice on becoming a successful load matcher.

As an editor, I had reservations about assuming the yoke of a transport buyer. While I've spent years interviewing experts, studying, reporting, and writing about transportation and logistics, aside from occasional forays to the post office, I've never been an actual shipper in search of a transport solution.

I was apprehensive about navigating freight-matching sites and entering shipment vitals without blowing my cover—and for good reason. My "imposter" status was quickly uncovered, but the learning experience was valuable nonetheless.

While I could only go so far in my search without actually negotiating a price and tendering a load, "real" shippers have the added burden of trusting cargo to a carrier or broker they are often not familiar with. Many businesses share equal trepidation about using these services and their caution is well-founded because pitfalls do exist.

Yet equally compelling are the opportunities to find new and reliable carriers that are qualified to ship your loads—and want your business—and to compare costs and transit times to find the most economic and efficient transport options available.

A number of legitimate online freight-matching sites offer essentially the same service: an opportunity to register an account, enter shipment information, compare price and time parameters, then contact a carrier or broker.

Some sites help you commit to a quote and contract with a carrier or broker over the Internet, while others give you the resources and contact information to follow up on your own.

For large shippers with steady cargo volume, partnering with a third-party business that can broker and tender shipments is sometimes the logical decision. The sheer effort in aligning carriers and matching moving inventory to available equipment is a burden that many companies would rather not deal with.

For time-critical shipments especially, businesses may be better served working with a broker whose primary responsibility is to find trucks.

"Most shippers are willing to pay brokerage fees if they can get what they need," says Gabrielson. "Brokers definitely make life easier for shippers as long as they don't gouge them with fees."

But he also acknowledges that sometimes success with this method of finding transportation can depend on a company's size, and whether it has the financial leverage to court brokers.

For small businesses with low volume, or enterprises that need to find extra capacity when demand spikes, freight-matching sites offer a viable option. Even today, as the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort brings carriers to the Gulf Coast, capacity is becoming tighter in other U.S. regions. Shippers can find alternate carriers they may not know about, or accommodate last-minute shipments, by posting loads online.

Small shippers dealing directly with carriers through load-matching portals gain the ability to reduce shipping costs. They can dispense with the middleman, save money on brokerage fees, and have more direct control over shipments, which is critical when they have to manage exceptions and reroute movements.

Companies moving a small number of shipments may be best served by bringing brokerage activity in-house and availing themselves of online freight databases, suggests Gabrielson. Large shippers find similar advantages in controlling their inbound shipments and offering better customer service.

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Universal Forest Products Inc. (UFPI), which distributes wood and wood-alternative products to retail/dealer, site-built construction, manufactured housing, and industrial markets throughout the United States, started using Getloaded.com to match loads in 2001. UFPI ships approximately 50,000 loads a year inbound to its various plants around the country.

"Using Getloaded.com helps us access capacity as well as find new carriers," says Debbie Cromer, transportation specialist, Universal Forest Products Inc. "The unique feature of Getloaded.com is the ability to post and match loads with available trucks.

"We're a large shipper with facilities across the United States. Having one chain of command versus an added intermediary helps us meet delivery demands, control shipments and costs, and offer better customer service," she adds. UFPI does, however, use brokers when opportunities arise.

"Brokers come to us; we don't go to them. They respond to postings," Cromer says. "We also e-mail a load list to our partner carriers and brokers so they can respond that way as well."

UFPI uses a group of dedicated carriers to handle about 30 percent of its total shipments. The remaining loads are posted on Getloaded.com.

"Working with Getloaded.com has enabled us to develop relationships with carriers we might not otherwise have connected with," she concludes.

Making a Date with a Rate

My own sojourn into online cargo dating began with a web search for "freight match." The first listing was a web site looking to connect adventurous singles, which further cemented my sentiment that love is truly a commodity. The rest of the listed sites, however, were in line with what I was looking for.

I decided to check out freightquote.com, which lets shippers register an account and post loads at no charge. It took me all of one minute to enter my shipping and billing information as you would with an online retailer.

Next, I filled in a Rate and Schedule form for an imaginary 100-pound box of commercial goods moving domestic LTL from New York City to a residence in Steamboat Springs, Colo., requiring a lift gate at origin and destination, with two-days notice.

I submitted my information and received these three quotes:

Watkins Motor Lines—$278.03—5+ days

Roadway Express—$309.46—6+ days

FedEx Ground—$357.17—5 days

To get an accurate comparison, I entered another shipment for a 30-pound box of commercial goods and received the same quotes and times. Any seasoned shipper would have realized that any economies of scale I might achieve would be with considerably heavier shipments. While I didn't realize that, a freightquote.com customer service representative did.

Within 24 hours of my test quote, I received this e-mail from freightquote.com, questioning my shipment information:

Hello Joe, I see you signed on to our web site and ran a couple of quotes. The weight on these quotes was very low, and the price was probably higher than you want to pay. Generally our prices are more advantageous for shipments of 300 pounds or more. Honestly, you are better off using UPS or FedEx for a 100-pound shipment being delivered to a residence.

I was immediately struck by the customer service representative's candor regarding my apparent lack of shipping savvy. Realizing my cover was blown, I called John Green, vice president of marketing for freightquote.com, who agreed to help me drill down through the rest of the freight-matching process.

Finding the Sweet Spot

"Your test weights fell below our 'sweet spot.' Because we act as a secondary sales channel for our carriers, the prices we present are geared toward meeting the particular freight needs of those carriers—and shipments weighing less than a few hundred pounds are not our carriers' primary need," Green explains.

"Of course, the sweet spot varies by carrier and lane, but generally our solution works best for shipments weighing 300 pounds or more."

With further assistance from John Barnes, freightquote.com's resident shipping guru, I proceeded to enter a more realistic load into the database: a 1,500-pound pallet of commercial goods moving from New York City to Atlanta, Ga. (we figured the pass to Steamboat Springs was too snowy).

We also decided that both the origination and destination locations had a loading dock—eliminating the need for a lift gate, thus expanding the list of carriers and brokers that served the area.

Because I naturally imagined the load to be a pallet of magazines, we selected a middle-of-the-road National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) freight class of 70. The NMFC number dictates the type of shipment being moved, detailing product density, sensitivity, and value, among other factors.

Generally, the higher the freight class, the greater the value of a shipment, the care needed to transport it, and, ultimately, the shipping cost.

I also entered the dimensions of a standard pallet—48 inches by 48 inches—which helps freightquote.com validate the freight class if shippers are confused about what to enter.

After submitting the information this time, I received 20 quotes from carriers across multiple modes—LTL, TL, rail, ocean, and air/expedited. Prices ranged from $600 to $1,500, depending on time parameters and mode. Without an actual pallet of magazines to ship myself, I tagged along with Barnes for a virtual ride through the rest of the process.

At this point, shippers select the transportation option that best suits their needs, and fill out an origin and destination form online with requisite addresses and contact information. Freightquote.com then populates a pickup notification and sends it directly to the carrier via EDI or XML.

Users can print copies of the bill of lading to present to the driver at pickup, and can track the shipment, along with any other loads they have booked through the web site. This information is stored for review or to facilitate data entry for recurring shipments in the same lanes.

This simplicity filters down to carrier communication and reconciliation as well. If, for example, shippers need to reroute a load in transit, all they have to do is contact a freightquote.com customer rep and communicate the necessary changes. The rep will contact the carrier and reroute the shipment as directed.

Expanding Freight Options

For businesses that post and contract multiple loads with different carriers, freightquote.com bundles their invoices into one bill to make it easier to reconcile payments. For any claims shippers need to address, freightquote.com will similarly act as an intermediary between the two parties to rectify the situation.

An online load-matching service's value proposition is to present a simple interface for carriers, brokers, and shippers to engage in business. The sites allow carriers to do what they do best—fill their trailers and move product. For shippers and brokers, online portals offer a one-stop shop where they can post multiple loads with multiple carriers across multiple modes, and deal with one single point of contact.

"Buying transportation should be simpler than it is. Carriers, however, have been forced to make it complex in order to provide shippers with the minute details they need to offer the best service to their customers," says Green.

Freightquote.com and other online services have evolved to fill this void and act as intermediaries to let businesses focus on their core responsibilities.

Naturally, not all shippers are alike and they often exhibit different traits when it comes to contracting loads with carriers. A 'Type B' shipper, for example, might prefer web sites such as freightquote.com that shoulder the responsibilities of finding available trucks and consummating contractual agreements, eliminating the need to wrangle with carriers over rates and times.

'Type A' shippers, by contrast, want more control over negotiating price quotes and selecting carriers. They are more inclined to use trade publications and Internet databases as a means to locate trucking companies operating in close proximity to a load origin.

For shippers such as PARC Corp., North Aurora, Ill., which ships plastic and paper scrap to Asia for use in other applications, finding available capacity in specific locations was a major pain point. Traffic Manager Ken Zalga began using LoadMatch.com recently to find additional carriers.

PARC Corp. brings product into its crossdock facility, then distributes it via intermodal to ports, where it is shipped to Asia using PARC's contracted ocean carriers. Prior to signing up on LoadMatch.com, Zalga used a transportation ticker, or called steamship lines to get access to intermodal trucking company contact information.

A Better Solution

Vendors control 80 percent of its inbound shipments, leaving PARC Corp. responsible for the remaining transport moves as well as the outbound drayage to ports or railroad ramps. It uses four in-house carriers to meet these needs, and looks for outside carriers when a load is picked up in a rural area or a core trucker cannot accommodate a shipment.

With LoadMatch.com, Zalga plugs in the ZIP code of the shipment pickup location, and gets the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of carriers that operate nearest that location. Instead of posting loads, he calls the carriers for quotes.

"I can get three phone numbers and three quotes in 10 minutes," he says, which enables him to select trucking companies based on cost, time, and location.

Continuing my online sleuthing, I investigated LoadMatch.com, Getloaded.com, and Direct Freight Services to get a feel for their products. Each service offers shippers a direct interface with potential carrier partners and brokers serving specific lanes and shipment considerations.

Admittedly, most load-matching sites are geared toward the needs of carriers and brokers, simply because they are the sites' core users and greatest source of revenue. The more shipper postings an online freight service can bring to its load board, however, the more truckers and brokers will use their site.

As an incentive to attract more loads to their freight-matching databases, many sites offer shippers free search options or charge nominal monthly fees for their full plate of services.

I began with LoadMatch.com, clicked the "truck capacity" search link on its home page and entered Caldwell, N.J.—my hometown—as the point of origin. Its search engine populated a list of 37 trucking companies operating within a 200-mile radius of Caldwell that could conceivably meet my needs.

Each listing provided the available date, point-of-origin distance from Caldwell, destination, contact information, size and type of equipment, and whether it had an interchange. Truckers and shippers can look for loads and equipment as well as companies within the directory, free of charge. To post trucks or loads, users must register for an account, which costs $50 per month.

Want to Getloaded?

Next up was Getloaded.com. I clicked the "free test demo" button on its home page, went to the "post trucks" tab, and initiated the same radius truck search within 200 miles of Caldwell. The engine provided a list of nearly 60 companies traveling within that area, again offering equipment options, origin and destination information, and available dates.

Getloaded.com's demo search engine provides real truck listings but hides the carrier name and contact information.

Shippers can sign up for a free freight account and post loads via phone, fax, or e-mail. To obtain full access to Getloaded.com's database, including its TransCredit CreditScore rating—which details the potential risk of doing business with a particular company—or its point-to-point routing technology, requires a $35 monthly subscription.

Direct Freight Services also has an online demo shippers can access from its main page. I clicked through its form, entered my e-mail address, and was presented with a basic shipment form asking me to enter origin and destination, the type of trailer equipment required, available date, as well as whether I would like to be alerted via e-mail of potential matches that arise during the day.

If you require specific equipment for a particular time, you can make those selections and refine your search. For $25 per month, users are allowed unlimited use of Direct Freight Services' web site with full disclosure of truck company names and contacts. Shippers can then decide whether that's a date worth meeting.

For me, a rendezvous with a 25-ton lowboy trailer with a full-width gooseneck platform at 10 p.m. in Caldwell sounded dubious.

As with any new endeavor, shippers considering using online freight matching services must conduct a certain amount of due diligence to make sure they find the right site and engage with reputable partner carriers and brokers.

"We never release a load to a carrier without making sure it has the proper insurance authority and other necessary paperwork," says Debbie Cromer, UFPI. "This is one reason why we haven't delegated this responsibility to a third party. We want total control over our shipments and who delivers them."

Most sites I visited offer credit reporting information on the carriers and brokers listed on their board. Even still, shippers should perform their own research.

Shippers need to first identify what site they want to use. "Then ask: 'What is the critical mass? If I post my loads on this site how many carriers and brokers will be able to view my postings?'" suggests Cromer.

Similarly, shippers should fully investigate potential freight matching services, cautions Jason Hilsenbeck, president, LoadMatch.com. He cites one example where a broker was partnering with businesses on a freight board, then double-brokering loads on other sites.

Once you have settled on a site and identified a possible match, ask questions to find out who you are doing business with, Hilsenbeck adds.

"Is the site a carrier or a broker? Does it operate its own trucks? What is the carrier base? How long will it take to deliver shipments and who will move them?'" he says.

If necessary, shippers can also check a carrier or broker on the FMCSA web site to make sure it is in good standing. Dependable carriers and brokers are equally judicious about ensuring they partner with shippers that have good credit reports. Shippers are wise to have their credit references in check when they start posting loads, Hilsenbeck advises.

To Date or Not to Date...

As long as shippers perform the necessary legwork to find a site that best matches their needs, and ask plenty of questions when they find a willing carrier or broker, the upside to using freight matching sites is huge.

Look at it this way: Few businesses will ever eschew a long-term partnership with a carrier for a one-time blind date it knows nothing about. But even fewer businesses will give up a free blind pass at using carriers they might find efficient and economical.

What do you have to lose? Maybe it's time to give online freight matching services a chance.

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