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Heavy Haul

Spot Freight Rates

Technology has disrupted many industries worldwide, but most people don’t think about its impact on the freight and cargo industry. One of the chief impacts has been in spot freight rates, or spot-buy freight, as it is often called.

While traditionally, spot freight is used to find rates for a last-minute shipment, it’s becoming a more common tactic that all brokers, shippers, and freight carriers need to be aware of and understand.

spot freight

What is spot buy or spot market freight, and how is it changing the logistics industry long-term?

What is spot freight?

To explain spot freight fully, we need to define a couple of other terms first: spot buy freight and spot rates.

Spot-buy freight

Spot-buy freight, also known as spot freight, is the process a company that wants to ship something goes through to obtain multiple quotes from logistic service providers (LSPs) to transport their goods from point A to point B.

The term was originally coined for making “on the spot” decisions about urgent freight. But it can be used for a wide variety of freight solutions. In many cases, a shipper is looking for an “end to end” quote. For instance, some international shipping might be picked up by a trucking company first, transported to a port, shipped intermodal transport, picked up at the destination port, and trucked again to the final delivery location. Spot-buy freight combines these multiple services into a single quote.

Still, spot freight is most commonly used when a shipment needs to be expedited.

Spot rates

When a carrier offers a shipper a  rate “on the spot” to move a load, usually urgently, from one point to another, that is called a spot rate. Compared to contract rates, spot market rates are dynamic; they can vary a great deal, even inside the course of a single day.

Spot rates vary so much because they’re based on supply and demand. If there is a big demand for expedited shipping and only a few trucks available, rates go up. If many trucks are looking for spot loads, but only a handful of shippers need spot freight carriers, prices drop dramatically.

Think of it like booking a vacation. A hotel in a high-demand area like Las Vegas might fill up quickly during a convention or spring break. But if you travel in the off-season or at off-peak times, rates can be much lower.

This means spot freight rates offer potential opportunities but come with risks as well.

Spot rates vs. contract rates

What is the difference between spot rates and contract rates, and why does it matter to you? Spot rates are offered on the spot to move a one-time shipment from place to place. Contract rates cover moving multiple freight loads for a customer within a certain lane under defined conditions for a set amount of time.

Spot rates

Spot rates are more volatile and change rapidly, even over short periods of time. There is no long-term commitment to a certain rate between a carrier and a shipper or broker when it comes to spot rates. 

While spot rates often help predict the pricing trends (up or down) for contract rates, the two are not always related. Again, spot rates are based on the basic economic principle of supply and demand. 

Contract rates

Certain supply chain factors play into contract rates, including consistent shipping lanes, destination shipping and receiving requirements, and in some cases, the type of truck or trailer needed. Shippers and carriers then agree on rates within a given period, usually based on those factors.  The risk for carriers comes when demand rises and costs go up, in which case the carrier could still be required to provide service at the agreed-upon rate. Of course, the converse is true as well: If demand drops and prices fall, the shipper risks still having to pay the pre-negotiated rate.

However, for both the shipper and the carrier, contract rates are generally more stable. They make it easier for carriers to budget for expenses. Typically lasting one year, contract rates protect both the shipper and the carrier from fluctuating market conditions, which can vary quite a bit over a year.

Why use spot freight?

Despite spot freight’s volatility, there are some circumstances when it’s a good solution for both shippers and carriers. For example:

  • Winning a new customer: A carrier or broker might offer a spot rate to determine if a potential customer is a good fit. This can make sense even if the spot rate is lower than typical contract rates, allowing the carrier to win a long-term customer potentially.
  • Project freight: A good example of this is the Olympics or a similar sporting event. The shipping needed is for a limited amount of time and various freight types. But it’s not ongoing shipping over a long period. This is a common way to use spot freight.
  • Shipment exceptions: Otherwise known as shipment delays, exceptions can be related to weather, natural disasters, or other events that cause a shipment to be “stuck” somewhere. Often, obtaining a new carrier using spot freight is the best way to get them moving again, even though it can be costly. The is especially true for perishable or time-sensitive freight.

The most common reason for using spot freight is expedited freight, when the priority is to get something from point A to point B quickly. In this case, the shipping cost is not as important as the delivery of the goods within a certain time frame. Speed and meeting the shipper’s terms and conditions will override a lower bid. 

Both spot freight and contract freight agreements have their pros and cons. Weigh both to determine the right solution for each given situation.

Pros and cons of spot freight

While contract freight can be a good solution for regular long-term shipping, there are some drawbacks. Spot freight has some distinct pros:

  • You can respond to spikes in volume without hitting contract limits.
  • If you have irregularly timed shipments rather than shipping regularly, spot freight can meet those needs. This is because contract shipments often require a certain volume in a given period of time.
  • If you ship to different areas without using a consistent lane, spot freight can be an advantage. This is because contract rates are often based on shipping within a certain region or shipping lane. 
  • Sometimes you can save money when spot freight rates are low.

There are some disadvantages, too:

  • It’s harder for individual shippers to build relationships with contracted carriers, but using a broker who works with multiple shippers can overcome this.
  • You have less stability in your ability to ship with a certain carrier when you have more volume.
  • A lack of stable rates makes it hard to plan for cash flow.
  • Negotiating rates takes a lot of time and effort, and working with different carriers often results in a difference in the quality of service you receive. This is also an area where a broker can ensure you get the same quality of service even when using spot freight carriers.

How to get the most out of spot freight rates

Most businesses can take advantage of both contract and spot freight rates using a hybrid approach to shipping. To get the most out of spot freight rates, they can use them to:

  • Free up shipments that have become stuck for some reason.
  • Handle spikes in volume that normal contract agreements can’t cover.
  • Ship outside of your normal lane of operations.
  • Take on special freight projects, and take advantage of low rates when they are available.
  • Help determine how well you and a carrier might work together and establish a relationship for other potential shipping needs.

When shippers start out, using spot freight can be a good solution until they have enough regular volume to set up yearly contract rates. Even once they’ve established enough shipping volume, a hybrid approach can help solve overall shipping needs.

Secure better rates with a load board.

How do you pull all of this together? A load board can help you find the right shipping solution for your particular needs at any given time. Staying on top of spot freight rates and monitoring shipping trends will make your business more profitable no matter what you need to ship, where, and when.

The easiest way to secure better rates is to use a load board to reach thousands of quality carriers and compare rates in a single location. With Truckstop.com, you get more than that.

Our Rate Estimate tool helps you analyze current rates and spot trends in volume and pricing. This gives you negotiating power you might not otherwise have. In addition to that, we have a rate analysis tool that goes even deeper. Want to check it out? Schedule a demo today.

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