Capacity Constraints in the Household Goods Moving Industry

What they are, why they happen and what we can do about them

Fortunately, the global shipping industry has largely recovered from much of the extreme disruption, backlogs, delays and record-breaking price hikes we experienced over the last few years. That may prompt you to wonder: Are capacity constraints still a thing in the household goods moving and storage world?

The short answer is yes. The challenges of balancing the right levels of supply and demand are a reality across all sectors of the transportation industry. Understanding what causes capacity imbalances and what parts of the process can be controlled will help you minimize the impact on your relocation program. Perhaps most importantly, knowing how to best navigate capacity constraints can help you set your relocating employees’ expectations and deliver better experiences when shipping their personal belongings by air, sea and road.

What we mean by ‘capacity’

Simply put, when it comes to the transportation industry, capacity is space. It’s the maximum amount of room available for moving goods at any given time via the containers and planes, ships, trains and trucks that transport them – or in the warehouses that store them. It’s the space available within shipping lanes, at ports, via air traffic/airports, and on the rails and roads. It’s determined by the size, type and number of available transport vessels, as well as the size, weight and types of goods that are being moved by them. It is also influenced by regulations that dictate how the process works, such as maximum load weights and operator/safety requirements, including mandated commercial driving and resting hours. For shipments of any kind – domestic and global – vessels should be at full capacity to achieve the maximum levels of time and cost efficiencies, for carriers and end consumers alike.

That sounds like it should be easy enough, right? Well, not always. Even though some conditions or events may seem like they should be detached from the shipment of household goods, especially as they relate to domestic-only moves by road, constraints happening anywhere along the global supply chain impact all transportation companies, with the potential to drive up costs and lead to longer transit times. Several things can contribute to a capacity crunch, including:

  • Economic conditions that significantly increase the costs of fuel and other related commodities.
  • Seasonal cycles that create surges in demand, including peak moving season, which typically runs from May – September in North America.
  • Extreme weather conditions, storms or other environmental challenges, such as the low water levels in the Panama Canal currently forcing a reduction in vessel traffic.
  • Global holidays or events that close factories (Golden Week, Chinese New Year) and/or prompt increases in consumer purchases (back-to-school season, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas). While these are known and anticipated, it’s difficult to predict exact volume or demand levels each year.
  • Labor disputes and/or increased labor costs.
  • Driver shortages, further exacerbated in the household goods moving industry by an aging driver population and the physical demands of the job.
  • A shortage of supply or delays in producing new moving equipment or parts.
  • Outdated or insufficient technology that facilitates optimal communication, inventory tracking and real-time route status updates.
  • Significant global events and the domino effects they have across all industries and regions, like the temporary Suez Canal obstruction we saw in 2021, the global pandemic, or regional hostilities and warfare.

The current picture

As of the beginning of Q4 2023, pricing and capacity levels are largely stable in most U.S. domestic markets and several global regions as well. But many international moves still present challenges – the hostilities in and around Israel, the ongoing war in Ukraine and lingering supply chain disruptions/equipment delays are still disrupting many global routes.

What can we expect in the near term? We’re currently seeing reduced moving volumes, attributed largely to the geopolitical and economic uncertainty, high interest rates and lack of available housing inventory, in both the purchase and rental segments. In addition, historically, election years in the United States tend to prompt a more cautious “wait and see” mindset on the part of many business leaders. Taking all those influences together, we’ll likely see fewer capacity constraints for the rest of 2023 and into the first half of 2024.

In fact, an Inbound Logistics survey found that trucking companies are less worried about the ability to find capacity now (cited by 30% of respondents this year vs. 52% last year), or the ability to efficiently match product supply and demand (20% this year vs. 35% last year).

As we’ve noted, however, supply and demand ebb and flow, so capacity constraints will eventually return. Armed with the right information, you can prepare your team to be ready when they do.

Tips for managing expectations

While many of the conditions that cause capacity shortages are largely out of anyone’s control, there are certain things you can do to help mitigate the impact when demand is high and available space is in short supply. Here are some tips for setting up for success:

When choosing a moving company partner:

  1. Book early. The sooner a carrier knows the full details of the move, including total weight, origin and destination locations and preferred dates, the more likely they are to be able to secure all the necessary steps to accommodate it.
  2. Stay flexible. Giving your moving company a range of acceptable dates and days of the week goes a long way toward helping to secure space. Having the option to load the truck from a Monday – Wednesday window, for example, is extremely helpful for schedulers and likely to get your employees moving faster.
  3. Select a moving company with a healthy roster of owned assets, partnerships and van operators. The more trucks and warehouse space a moving company has direct access to and control over, the more likely they are going to be able to meet your needs. Similarly, the more drivers they have working for them, the better they will be able to flex to address changing conditions.
  • Research their owned assets, including not just how many trucks are in their own fleet, but what resources they can leverage through agency partnerships, and how they address temporary or storage-in-transit (SIT) needs.
  • Ask about their operational model, and whether they run long distance and trailer fleets together for efficiency, or if they have high volumes in certain geographic regions. Some companies will have “power lanes” that may align well with your office location needs, allowing for expedited transit times and lower costs.
  • Explore what they are doing to actively retain the proven talent they already have while recruiting and training new drivers. You can ask, for example, how they recognize and reward drivers with proven customer service and safety records, or whether they support or sponsor entrants into the field with financial or other resources to help them obtain their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and/or facilitate the purchase of equipment.
  1. Choose a partner with flexible transport options. If your moving company operates solely with the traditional van line model, your options will be severely limited. Flexibility is key, particularly for those mobile employees with smaller shipments or fewer belongings to transport. As noted above, trailers must be at full capacity for maximum efficiency. Most traditional van lines use 53’ trailers for over-the-road transportation. Unless you are moving a family from a large 3+ bedroom home, several shipments will likely be loaded onto the same truck to fill the space. That can lead to delays while the other shipments are picked up, loaded and delivered along similar routes to your employee’s. Be sure to ask whether your moving partner can offer small (typically 1,000 lbs. or less), or containerized shipments to give you and your employees more flexibility and choice. A good moving partner will be able to assess your complete picture – including volume, distance, route and timing needs – and advise on the best course of action.

The bottom line

Even in the most stable of environments, predicting the exact levels of supply and demand in the transportation industry is challenging. The extreme circumstances we’ve witnessed over the last few years only add to the difficulties. While multiple factors can contribute to capacity constraints, there are a few proactive steps you can take to help mitigate the impact to your relocation program and your employees’ moving experiences.

Want to learn more about flexible moving options and managing constraints? Contact us.