The term LTL freight refers to shipping “less than load,” i.e. shipping goods that do not occupy an entire truckload. As a result, an LTL carrier may ship items from many vendors in the same truck. LTL is contrasted with FTL (full truckload), also know as TL (truckload), in which a shipper has purchased the capacity of the entire truck.
E-commerce companies are generally attracted to LTL shipping for several reasons. For one, LTL freight is usually less expensive (and more environmentally friendly) because it allows the shipping company to make optimal use of the space inside the truck. This makes LTL shipping a smart choice for small businesses such as e-commerce companies, who need a cost-effective and flexible shipping solution.
However, not all LTL carriers are created equal. If you’re running an e-commerce company, choosing the best LTL carrier could have a major impact on your expenses and customer satisfaction.
In this article, we’ll discuss the different types of LTL carriers and the different ways that you can classify them so that you can choose the best LTL carrier for your business situation.
Types of LTL Carriers: Micro-Regional, Regional, and National
E-commerce businesses looking for the best LTL carrier should consider the locations that they want to ship to. LTL carriers can be classified in terms of their geographic area (i.e. micro-regional, regional, or national). International LTL shipments are sometimes possible between two countries that share a land border (for example, the U.S. and Canada).
Micro-regional carriers usually cover shipments between two states, which may or may not border each other. Regional LTL carriers typically operate within a particular region, such as one of the four quadrants of the U.S. (Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast). National LTL carriers service the entire country, potentially including non-contiguous areas such as Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Price and geography are two of the most important factors for choosing an LTL freight carrier. Regional carriers are usually cheaper than national carriers, and micro-regional carriers are usually even cheaper still. E-commerce companies should look to save money on shipments while still being able to reach the areas where their customers are ordering from.
Alternatives to LTL: Volume LTL, Partial Truckload, Truckload
“Regular” LTL freight involves relatively small shipments, generally less than 6-10 pallets and less than 5,000 pounds. However, LTL involves shipments that are larger than parcel shipping, which is for packages that are relatively low in weight and/or small in size. The term “parcel shipping” typically refers to packages that weigh less than 150 pounds, or whose length and girth add up to less than 165 inches.
“Volume LTL shipping” is a term for shipments larger than regular LTL, but smaller than a full truckload. There isn’t an exact definition of volume LTL, but most people define volume LTL as cargo that meets one or more of the following criteria:
- Between 5,000 and 27,500 pounds
- Between 6 and 18 pallets
- Occupying more than 12 linear feet within the trailer
Regardless of the geographic location, LTL carriers use a shipping strategy known as LTL freight consolidation. This involves loading multiple items traveling to locations in close proximity to the same truck. Shipments are first picked up along a route, and then brought to an origin terminal to be cross-docked, where they are consolidated into another truck going to a destination terminal. Once this truck reaches its destination, the shipments are cross-docked again and then consolidated into another truck servicing a local route.
If you would prefer not to use a consolidation strategy, then you should investigate alternatives to LTL such as partial truckload and truckload.
“Truckload” freight shipping involves large amounts of cargo that take up more than half of an entire trailer. “Partial truckload” (also known as partial TL) involves consolidating smaller shipments with existing truckload shipments. Unlike regular LTL shipments, however, shipments in partial TL never go through a cross-docking operation. Instead, partial TL shipments are unloaded at the destination from the same truck that they were loaded onto. This means that the destination for the partial TL shipment must be very close to the destination of the truckload shipment.
Partial TL is intended to fit any available space for an existing truckload shipment, which means that it can be as small as a single pallet. Theoretically, partial TL can also take up almost the entire trailer space if the truckload shipment only has a single pallet (which may occur if the customer does not want the freight to go through a cross-docking operation).
Shipping Nationally with Micro and Regional LTL Carriers
Another important distinction when considering LTL carriers is the difference between direct and interlined LTL.
With direct freight, you have the guarantee that only a single carrier will handle your shipment from source to destination. Interlined freight, on the other hand, may pass your shipment between multiple LTL carriers. For example, a cross-country interlined shipment may be transported by multiple LTL carriers, each one servicing a particular region of the U.S. This occurs when different LTL carriers join forces in order to service multiple geographic locations.
Direct freight is generally faster and more straightforward, with fewer delays and less risk of damaging items in transit. If your e-commerce company ships time-sensitive or fragile items, direct shipping may be the wiser choice. However, interlined freight is sometimes less expensive if you can wrangle a good discount from the carrier, and it may be more convenient if you need to ship outside your usual geographic area.
Packaging Preferences of LTL Carriers
Your choice of LTL carrier for your e-commerce business may also depend on how you plan to package your item. When choosing an LTL carrier, you’ll have to figure out the types of packages that different carriers are capable of handling.
- Pallets: Pallets are flat, typically wooden structures that are placed underneath packaged freight in order to support and secure it. They are capable of storing multiple items and are the most common type of packaging for LTL carriers.
- Crates: Crates are large, rectangular wooden boxes that are often used to protect fragile items, such as artworks and furniture. They can also be used to store multiple smaller packages.
- Barrels: Barrels are durable and stackable cylinders that are often used to ship certain liquids and various dry goods in bulk.
- Bags: Plastic bags are frequently used to package clothing and apparel for parcel shipping, but they may be used in LTL as well.
LTL Shipments with Special Requirements
If you have special freight requirements for your e-commerce products, choosing the best LTL carrier is particularly important. Below are some shipping considerations you should be aware of.
Food items such as produce, meat, dairy, and bread are the most common types of perishable goods. Other examples include pharmaceutical drugs, vaccines, live plants, and biological materials such as sample cells or tissues.
If you need to work with perishable goods, make sure you work with an LTL carrier who has experience with the type of freight that you’re shipping.
Perishable goods may be refrigerated or frozen during delivery to extend their shelf life. Other items that may require strict temperature controls during shipping are photographic film, live animals, and certain chemicals.
Shipping temperature-controlled items could require special packaging, insulation, and coolants. In addition to temperature, the goods you ship may need to be regulated in terms of humidity, light, and vibration.
Temperature control is closely related to, but distinct from, perishable goods. For example, potatoes are perishable goods that generally do not require strict oversight of temperature controls during shipping. However, they can still be damaged by mishandling, and can even release a toxic gas when rotting.
White glove delivery
“White glove delivery” refers to extended delivery services that provide special care and handling for fragile items during shipping. LTL carriers that offer white glove delivery may carry the item up or downstairs, place the item in a room of your choice, and remove excess packaging.
This option is often provided for valuable and easily breakable items such as furniture, large equipment, and antiques.
Specialty e-commerce stores may ship certain materials that are considered hazardous, such as explosives, radioactive substances, dry ice, compressed gases, biomedical waste, and lithium batteries. Even everyday items such as nail polish, hair spray, matches, bleach, and e-cigarettes may be classified as hazardous materials for shipping.
Finding an LTL carrier that ships hazardous materials will be more challenging, and may require you to go through an approval process.
As we’ve discussed above, there are many ways to classify the different types of LTL carriers: LTL vs. volume LTL, geographic reach, direct vs. interlined, and various types of packaging. Also, depending on the e-commerce products you sell, you may need to find an LTL carrier that offers special services such as temperature control and white glove delivery.
Motherload specializes in helping e-commerce merchants grow by providing legal, feedback rated transporters that are ready to bid on your LTL shipment