With nearly 30% of all U.S. produce shipments originating in California, produce freshness can be a daunting task for grocers on the East Coast. New regulations, stability of the refrigerated transportation industry and the entrance of big-box retailers in the produce market has enticed well capitalized non-traditional refrigerated carriers into the sector, bringing not only rate competition but also expanded service options, according to analysts at BMO Capital Markets. These services include more domestic intermodal reefer routes and expedited trucking services, which have the capability to transport perishables from California fields to East Coast markets in just three days compared to up to five-and-one-half days for standard service.
The refrigerated shipping industry has historically consisted of owner-operators, BMO notes. As higher operating costs and stricter enforcement of safety rules make operating conditions more difficult, well diversified trucking companies can leverage their size and expansive geographic footprint to offer value-added services such as expedited routes, guaranteed capacity and competitive pricing.
Reefer capacity for the top-ten reefer carriers has increased 12.5% since 2007, while dry-van capacity declined 13.2% over the same period. This discrepancy is due to non-traditional refrigerated carriers expanding their refrigerated fleets in an effort to diversify their businesses away from the less specialized nature and intense cyclicality of dryvan.
Recently, Covenant Transportation Group, U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Knight Transportation and CRST International have all expanded their refrigerated fleets. Knight Refrigerated currently operates more than 700 refrigerated trailers, up from 260 in 2007. This trend of expanding refrigerated fleets is expected to continue throughout 2012.
Reefer trailer production outpaced normalized replacement levels for the last eight out of nine years. This trend is expected to continue at least in the near-term due to more stringent equipment regulations, namely the California Air Resources Board (CARB) requiring seven-year or older refrigerated trailer units to be replaced or retrofitted based on emission standards. It is estimated that over 100,000 trailer units representing potentially as much as 20% of capacity will turn seven years or older by 2014.
Furthermore, with new refrigerated trailers carrying a cost of $45,000-$55,000 (dry van trailers cost between $25,000 and $35,000), and retrofitting running $4,000-$9,000 per trailer, poorly capitalized carriers may find it difficult to compete as a result of these new regulations.