Feast or Famine for Import Warehouses

Two key features distinguish import-driven warehouses, says a report by Prologis. One is the extreme volatility of their daily workloads and the other is the spottiness of accurate, timely information about ship arrival times and container deliveries.

"Import-Driven Warehousing in North America" notes that as world trade grows, so does the volume of container traffic. And with the US spending $1.88 trillion on imports in 2006, much of that freight moved in containers. But, while the early promise of containerization to reduce handling at the docks has been met, the story at the warehouse is very different.

The warehouses that have developed near ports (or are located further inland) to serve import flows can't be separated from the import process, says the report. Each import warehouse must plan its receiving workload based on the performance of and information from five different organizations, it continues. These include the steamship liens, forwarders and brokers, terminal operators, drayage companies and Customs and Border Protection.

The workload can surge from zero to 50 containers in a single day, depending on the pace of unloading, customs clearance, and drayage as well as the original ordering pattern of the import customer. Import warehouse managers are not the masters of their own fates, says the report. Their efficiency and productivity depend not just on how well they execute their own operations but also on how well the other players within the import supply chain execute theirs.

Steamship lines are a major source of volatility and uncertainty, say warehouse operators. They also had a number of issues with longshore labor and other operators. Tariffs, fees, customs clearance and security were chief among their concerns. Hours of operation at the warehouses and chassis and dock space also come into play. Inconsistent communications between shipping lines, brokers, draymen, and importers exacerbate the planning and execution difficulties at the import warehouse, the report added.

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