As one of the world’s biggest and most important markets, China faces huge pressure on its logistical infrastructures to maintain a certain level of productivity and efficiency to keep the global supply chain oiled, running, and stable.
From factories and warehouses to ports, terminals, and more, Chinese workers across all logistical sectors clock long hours all year round to ensure the upkeep of the supply network worldwide.
But twice a year, the world’s largest exporter permits itself a break.
Known as the Golden Week in China, there are two such week-long respites in the country — one in each half of the year.
The first, known as the Chinese Lunar New Year Golden Week, is at the start of the year in January/February to give people time off to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
The second, the National Day Golden Week, is part of the country’s national day celebrations and happens in October — right in the middle of the shipping peak season.
Given China’s influence on the global market and world trade, a week-long —albeit anticipated— lull has the potential to cause chaos on supply chain operations and rippling effects and logistical delays around the world.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on the National Day Golden Week in October. But to understand how the National Day Golden Week in China affects logistics, we must first dive into some basic facts about the holiday.
The National Golden Week in China takes place in the first week of October every year to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The 2019 Golden Week runs from 1 October (Tuesday) to 7 October (Monday).
Photo: Straits Times/AFP
During the Golden Week in China, workers take a break from the hustles and bustles of life. Throngs of travellers crowd trains, buses, airports, to either get home to visit their families or travel.
And while China deals with the travel logistics of its Golden Week, the rest of the world grapples with the impact this has on their supply chain logistics.
Over the course of the Golden Week, factories across the country close and production comes to a standstill. Likewise, at ports and terminals, work and personnel are reduced to the bare minimum.
With operations running at a tiny fraction of full speed, productivity and efficiency levels shrink and it becomes logistically impossible for exporters and importers to get their goods moving into and out of China.
That means that all the action has to take place before the festivities begin.
In the weeks leading up to the China Golden Week, demand for Chinese exports skyrockets as businesses attempt to get their exports out before operations in China completely shut down.
In response to the activity deficit, shipping carriers often announce service cuts.
At the time of writing, two of the main shipping alliances have announced cuts of 15 weekly sailings from Asia to North America:
Even post-Golden Week, capacity and personnel often remain limited and production can be slow to pick up. Carriers may also continue to cancel sailings in the weeks that follow.
That said, failure to get your merchandise into or out of China before the festivities may result in dire consequences, as delays from the Golden Week can sometimes last for months.
For businesses, this may translate to potential breaches in contracts, accruing delay fees, low sales figures, and so on.
It is no coincidence that the Golden Week in China takes place during the shipping peak season. In fact, it is considered to be the trigger to the first wave of soaring rates, high demand, low space and equipment availability, roll-overs, and congestions.
“Technically, China’s Golden Week is what kick-starts the shipping peak season. We see the first rate increases as early as July or August as shippers fight for space.
As operations slowly resume after the Golden Week, there’s a second wave of price increases as shipping preparations for Christmas and Chinese New Year get underway.”
— Aliona Yurlova, International Business Development Expert at iContainers
High demand, low space and equipment availability, roll-overs, and congestions are synonymous with both the China Golden Week and the shipping peak season.
But how are they a direct factor of the fluctuating and soaring shipping costs?
In the weeks prior to the start of the Golden Week, demand for exports out of China surge.
This is in anticipation of the shutdown as businesses importing from China try to secure a spot on outgoing vessels to ensure their goods are out of the country before production in the world’s largest exporter comes to a halt.
In response to this rising demand, shipping carriers increase spot rates. As of the beginning of September, spot rates from China to the North American West Coast is at its highest level in two months.
Amid this rush, the industry also faces scarcity of containers, slots, truckers, and everything in between. Shippers should be prepared to fork out more to secure not only a slot on a container vessel, but also for the equipment required for their shipments.
The standard General Rate Increases (GRIs) aside, there are also other surcharges to consider.
Given the higher demand for Chinese exports in comparison with Chinese imports, there’s often an urgent need containers to be returned to the terminal to manage the demand at Chinese ports.
This is when carriers begin implementing surcharges such as the Equipment Imbalance Surcharge (EIS) to compensate for the cost of ferrying empty containers back to Chinese ports to meet export demand.
The import-export imbalance caused by China’s National Day Golden Week also prompts vastly differing rate strategies by shipping carriers.
Despite the falling demand for Chinese imports, larger and more influential carriers, which have the benefit of a superior service (direct routes and shorter transit times) and reputation, tend to maintain their rates instead of lowering them to encourage sales.
In the event that there’s insufficient cargo to warrant a sailing, blank sailings and service cuts are normally announced. This is also to prevent FAK spot rates from falling below market level. As a result, ports often become more congested with rolled containers.
Smaller and Asian carriers, on the other hand, manage the softening import demand by lowering their rates. This is done even at a loss as they expect to be able to recover from the significantly higher rates for Chinese exports.
“Given this scenario, more cargo headed for China end up being booked with smaller carriers offering lower import rates. But given their limited capacity, this often results in the failure to match demand and cargo ends up getting rolled.
It’s this and the larger carriers’ blank sailings that contribute to the congestion we see before the Golden Week in China.”
— Aliona Yurlova
For there to be a loser, there must be a winner.
Despite the potential chaos the China Golden Week may cause to businesses, if managed properly, some companies can actually benefit from the operational shutdown in China.
Travel and consumption —both domestic and abroad— soar during the week-long holiday.
Domestically, Golden Week consumption in 2017 reached $189 billion.
As an exporter, getting your merchandise into China and the popular holiday destinations of Chinese tourists in time for Golden Week could help to lift sales.
The boost to these neighboring territories doesn’t only come from the holidaying Chinese.
As Chinese production shuts down, overseas SMEs may begin looking at neighboring countries as an alternative source for their imports.
These are great opportunities for alternative markets and providers. Vietnam, for example, recently signed a free trade agreement with the EU. This may result in a European push towards Vietnamese imports instead of China.
Going by the same logic, SMEs may also turn to their local distributors, given that importing from China during the Golden Week isn’t an option.
Make sure you conduct thorough research on the capacity availability and routes offered by carriers as well as keep up to date with possible announcements of blank sailings, rate increases, and surcharges.
In general, carriers determine availability and rates based on:
The magic number here is three weeks. That’s the minimum amount of time you need to have your cargo booked in advance to secure space.
Most freight forwarders have contracts with carriers that guarantees a certain amount of TEU slots per vessel sailing. During the peak season, container space that freight forwarders have first rights to that have not been filled two weeks prior to sailing are auctioned off to other clients.
Given the high demand and fight for space, our advice for shippers is to book as soon as possible or face paying a high cost to secure a spot.
As the most-coveted container type, 20-ft containers are often the first boxes to be booked full.
During the period just before the Golden Week in China, demand often outweighs supply and it becomes extremely challenging to secure a 20-foot container.
As a workaround, consider other container types, including the 40-ft container.
“During periods of high demand, the 40-ft can be a good alternative to the 20-ft. Even though shippers may not need the extra space, the lower demand for the 40-ft can sometimes result in better rates and availability.”
— Aliona Yurlova
Other non-standard containers such as the open top containers, flat racks, and reefers may also be difficult to secure as availability is already scarce even during non-peak seasons.
If dealing with these non-standard containers, as the mantra goes, it’s recommended to book in advance to ensure availability.
Containers aside, also consider other equipment needed for the proper transportation of your container such as the trucking chassis, or other special equipment such as lift gates, ramps, etc.
As intermediaries, freight forwarders can facilitate the complexities of shipping during the Golden Week and help you manage these bottleneck challenges. They also have the expertise to foresee hiccups typically associated with the Golden Week.
As a shipper, be very clear about your needs and inform your freight forwarder as early as possible of any specific needs.
Here’s what a freight forwarder can help you with:
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Klaus Lydsal, vice president of operations at iContainers