A sector on the rise
The containerised refrigerated transport sector has been driven by steady growth in recent years, with an increase of more than 7% in 2019. Today, 50% of goods traded in controlled temperatures are transported by ship, 80% of which are in containers.
The dynamics of the sector are mainly due to:
⇒ Growing demand, with more and more products transported under controlled temperature and dynamic markets. This is particularly the case in Asia, where the middle classes, who demand fresh, healthy products, are on the rise;
⇒ An increase in containerised trade in reefer goods, with the number of refrigerated bulk carriers in service steadily declining.
⇒ A guarantee of continuous quality of the products transported due to technological advances on this specific type of logistics.
But a sector under strain, with a significant shortage of reefer containers
Nevertheless, this sector is subject to a severe shortage of empty containers. As a result, European ports are suffering from a significant imbalance between the import and export of reefer containers. Asia, and China in particular, import a great deal yet export very few temperature-controlled products. This imbalance, prior to the coronavirus crisis, had already been amplified by swine fever, which had led to a very large increase in Chinese demand for pork.
Beyond this imbalance in flows, the market is suffering from a chronic lack of reefer containers.
A long-undervalued freight rate has not helped sustain sufficient reefer container manufacturing capacity to meet today's exceptional demands.
The logistics of containerised reefer transport are complex. Before each reuse, a pre-trip - a technical check and temperature adjustment of the container - should be carried out, which can only be performed in seaports and which effectively slows down the number of rotations of these containers. Consequently, a reefer container makes only 4 to 5 trips per year on average.
At present, despite very strong demand but with no guarantee of it holding up over time, the lack of containers does not meet all the needs of the sector.
Is the NOR* a route to consider?
With empty returns being very expensive, shipping companies are now looking to encourage disconnected returns called NOR - Non-Operating Reefer - especially between Asia and Europe. Despite a useful volume about 15% less than that of a dry container, NOR transport means transported goods can benefit from the insulation of reefer containers and also has the advantage of being less expensive than conventional transport.
Increased strain on reefers with the health crisis, but back to normal underway
Since the beginning of the health crisis, the reefer market has found itself even more unbalanced than normal. The prioritisation being demanded for food flows and health products has exacerbated the logistical strain. During the early stages of the crisis in Asia, a large number of reefer containers were stranded there due to lack of storage or transport opportunities. Then, in a second phase of slowing European demand, the situation could not stabilise and flows did not regulate themselves. In addition, many containers have been used as temporary storage solutions to address the shortage of cold storage capacity in warehouses, an additional brake on their rotation.
To date, the situation is recovering for the maritime temperature-controlled logistics sector. Reefer containers are returning from Asia and there is availability in cold warehouses, freeing up containers used for temporary storage.
This sector is returning to normal, but remains a sector under strain.