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The freight industry is anything but constant. Throughout the year, there are fluctuations in the freight market that happen as a direct response to seasonal demand, capacity, availability, and more.

As a carrier or owner-operator, this can impact your rates and the different options available to you. Understanding how these shipping seasons affect you can help you make the most of busy seasons when carriers are in high demand, and plan for slower seasons when profitable freight is harder to come by. Understanding market fluctuations will help you to negotiate ideal rates, plan optimal routes, and grow your business over time.

Knowing how to navigate the ups and downs of the freight market will help you strategically plan for long-term success. Staying informed is the first step to navigating these changes. Here’s what you need to know about how the seasons impact the industry.

It’s not just seasonal fluctuations you have to deal with. What about inclement weather? Discover what steps you can take to stay safe during inclement weather on the road by reading our next blog, “All-in-One Small Carrier Guide on Inclement Weather.

Spring Harvesting: Produce Season

There’s an expected surge in shipping volume that happens when the weather starts to improve after the winter. Beginning every spring, temperatures rise and fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest, which means small carriers typically see an increase in shippers looking to move produce.

Produce season starts each spring in the southernmost part of the United States and then moves north throughout the summer as the weather warms regionally. This seasonal shipping spike has been known to create supply dislocations across the country, and as a result, spot rates in varying regions become volatile.

But this surge in spring produce shipping doesn’t just affect carriers who handle produce. It impacts all carriers across the country. Small carriers and owner-operators flock to produce shipping regions to make the most of short-term rate spikes, starting in the south. These short-term rate spikes and capacity fluctuations infiltrate the entire market, which can make it difficult for carriers to secure freight in specific regions.

Except in the case of significant weather events, Produce Season in the U.S. typically happens from mid-to-late spring (April to June). The spike in domestic produce shipments during this period can cause capacity issues in certain regions, including Florida and Southern California. Texas also sees a surge in produce shipments starting in mid-march, which continues on through April.

Additionally, the need for refrigerated trucks for other purposes can have an effect on Produce Season for carriers across the country. For example, the need for refrigerated equipment and temperature-controlled units to move COVID-19 vaccines in the spring of 2021 tightened capacity for produce shippers across the country, driving up freight rates.

To add to the challenges for small carriers and owner-operators, the Food Safety Modernization Act added new rules that shippers, receivers, loaders, and carriers must adhere to when transporting food.

For carriers, this includes requirements for things like:

  • Temperature controls for trucks
  • Food contamination prevention
  • Vehicle cleanliness

Some carriers also find that Hours of Service (HOS) mandates impact the time drivers must spend waiting at loading docks, which means less time on the road, even with time-sensitive freight like produce waiting to be delivered.

Carriers and owner-operators need some regularity for truck scheduling during produce season. Having tools to plan freight several weeks in advance can help schedule profitable, efficient routes that capitalize on the higher rates carriers can get during Produce Season.

The Challenges of Hot Weather: Summer Food and Beverage Season

One of the biggest challenges that carriers face in the summer season is being able to control the temperature of the products they are transporting. Refrigerated trucks, also called “reefers,” are in high demand during the summer and shortages are all too common.

Manufacturers and retailers are looking to meet the needs of their customers during the summer and may look to prioritize some of their shipments. Especially as temperatures climb, the battle for capacity can be intense, and carriers need ways to optimize their own shipping strategies and fill their trucks.

Interestingly, consumers purchase more food during the summer months, and have for decades. This demand starts in the south, then expands as temperatures start to climb throughout the nation.

Demand is so high that there are several sub-seasons within the summer food and beverage season:

  • Grilling season prep: As the weather warms in May and June, Americans start to gear up for summer activities. Consequently, there’s a spike in retail, food, and beverage freight. There’s a particular volume increase in regions close to the U.S.-Mexican border, California, and the Pacific Northwest.
  • The BBQ surge: Summer cookouts in June and July lead to an increase in food and beverage freight, especially in California, Northern Texas, and the Great Plains. There’s an even greater spike in food and beverage freight leading up to the 4th of July.
  • Lead-up to Labor Day: The final weeks of summer include lots of parties. As a result, the volume of food and beverage freight hits an all-time high in the lead-up to Labor Day.

During these peak shipping windows, food and beverage manufacturers and retailers are especially reliant on carriers’ timely delivery, as shipping delays can result in on-time/in-full (OTIF) penalty fees, and eat into their products’ shelf life.

To keep up, carriers and owner-operators need to find ways to optimize their routes. Carriers can now use technology with features like map view to minimize deadheading, and to find the best routes to deliver summer food and beverages on schedule. Carries can plan around the spikes in demand for reefer trucks.

When Timing is Everything: Christmas Tree Season

There’s nothing like the smell of a fresh-cut Christmas tree, decorated with shiny ornaments and twinkling lights. But consumers want their trees to stay fresh all season long.

Once cut, pine trees begin to die. Timing is everything during Christmas tree season. There is a short window where trees are healthy, fresh-looking, and sellable. They have to be transported to their destination quickly, and efficiently.

Christmas tree vendors want fresh trees on their lot the day after Thanksgiving in order to accommodate early seasonal demand. Shippers begin contacting carriers about Christmas tree season in late August in order to have trees ready for sale on Black Friday—if not a few days before. Each Christmas season, Christmas tree farms sell between 25 and 30 million trees, averaging $75 per tree. This amounts to about $2 billion in business every year.

Christmas tree loads often cost more than other kinds of freight. This is because tree shipments are heavy, perishable, have an immediate market demand, and are bound to a hard deadline.

Fresh-cut Christmas trees are grown primarily in tree farms in a few very specific locations. Most commonly, fresh Christmas trees come from states like:

  • North Carolina
  • Michigan
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin
  • New York

For carriers and owner-operators, shipping Christmas trees requires close attention to detail to ensure trees survive the trip and are ready for display and sale. The origin of the tree will determine the shipping timeline, as trees grown in the Pacific Northwest may have a hard time adjusting to warmer climates.

Enterprising carriers and owner-operators should know that peak Christmas tree harvest and shipping dates are:

  • Mid-November, for early shoppers looking for hearty trees
  • Late November, for shoppers who want their trees to last a few weeks
  • Early to Mid-December, for the last cut trees of the season

However, it’s not just fresh-cut trees that carriers should be on the lookout for. The artificial tree market is worth between $1 billion and $2 billion annually, and retailers that import holiday-related products like artificial trees, also face a limited sales window. In 2020, retailers faced major supply chain disruptions and shortages of artificial trees. As early as September of this year, consumers were urged to think about their Christmas tree purchases, which means that carriers have a unique opportunity to help retailers meet high demand, and freight rates may reflect this. Shippers have to contend with spikes in load volume, which, when combined with low driver supply and high load demand, could mean great rates for small carriers and owner-operators.

The Holiday Hustle: Peak Retail Season

Peak retail season happens in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, there’s an increase in shipping demands in the weeks leading up to this peak season, as retailers prepare for the holiday hustle.

During peak retail season, many markets experience high demand and limited capacity, and shippers expect to pay peak-time surcharges, which means more goods on the road. This period is a prime opportunity for small carriers and owner-operators to take advantage of spikes in load volume and high demand for qualified carriers.

Peak season shipping is more than just meeting retailers’ needs for holiday shopping. This season begins well before Labor Day; stores stock their shelves for back-to-school shopping and the season then shifts as retailers prepare for the coming holiday rush.

Last year, there was more capacity available than in 2020 because Operation Warp Speed ended, but there was still a driver shortage. In 2021, retail shipping wasn’t competing for scarce transportation resources with the government or with the health industry, which gave shippers and carriers a bit more flexibility. Forecasters anticipated a strong peak retail season in 2021 with high demand and consumers making lots of purchases. Because of high demand and a driver shortage, small carriers had some leverage when it comes to negotiating great rates.

Navigating Peak Season with Xpress Technologies

These busy times of year are prime examples of high carrier demand, when owner-operators can take advantage of soaring rates. However, this requires careful planning. It’s a busy time where small carriers can take on lots of freight over numerous routes and it’s easy to make costly scheduling errors amidst all the chaos.

Xpress Technologies can help owner-operators and small carriers plan for these seasonal fluctuations in the shipping industry all year round. Thanks to the Xpress Technology App’s smart scheduling feature and effortless communication with our brokerage, owner-operators can plan as far ahead as freight is available. During peak season, this means that carriers can plan as far out as several weeks in advance.

This provides stability and reliability. Shippers may start sourcing for carriers early and offer the opportunity to lock in rates, which guarantees the driver a certain number of loads that they can prepare for.

Through the Xpress Technologies App owner-operators have access to transparent rates and loads that are optimized for their preferences, which means they have convenient and reliable offers.

Xpress Technologies is here to help carriers make the most of seasonal opportunities and high carrier demand. If there aren’t loads that perfectly match carrier preferences, owner-operators can also post their truck to find and discover offers that match as they become available.