Specialized Brokers Provide Leg Up in Strained Flatbed Market


FreightWaves — The outlook remains positive for both the housing and general construction markets. This market strength — paired with the relatively small number of flatbed carriers — means flatbed capacity is in high demand and difficult to secure. As shippers navigate this strained environment, they should consider whether their current 3PL partners are best suited for their needs. 

“Flatbed shipping is specialized. There are many more variables in terms of types of trailers and the required securement equipment than other modes,” PGT Services President Barret Rea said. “A specialized flatbed broker like PGT Services will understand this and provide a much better experience for both shippers and carriers.”

By using a flatbed-specialized broker, shippers virtually eliminate the risk of their freight being matched with the wrong truck, causing unnecessary delays and damages. They also increase their chances of finding capacity quickly because, while generalized brokers may work with more carriers overall, a specialized broker will be able to offer access to a larger number of flatbed carriers.

Partnering with 3PLs that understand the nuances of flatbed — and the differences between the flatbed and dry van markets — can make all the difference when it comes to securing capacity and locking down competitive rates. 

“Flatbed and dry van are similar only in that they both tend to be naturally affected by the economic freight environment as a whole. Otherwise they are driven by very different factors,” PGT Services Vice President Justin Burgh said. “Where dry van tends to be heavily driven by consumer spending, flatbed is heavily driven by infrastructure spending, the housing market, construction and the oil and gas market.”

Flatbed peak season tends to start early in the spring and last through the warm weather months, with a typical slowing during the peak dry van seasons. This is playing out now, as flatbed capacity continues to decrease and spot rates keep climbing despite recent dry van slowdowns. 

Current conditions in the flatbed space reflect the sector’s typical peak season, but capacity constraints and rate hikes remain affected by the heavy impact the coronavirus pandemic had on the already-small existence of quality flatbed carriers, according to Burgh. Like other carriers across the industry, flatbed companies are also reeling from a lack of qualified drivers. This tends to be exaggerated in flatbed, as new drivers tend to prefer the simpler dry van operations and existing flatbed drivers often make the switch to dry van when the market is strong. 

Navigating these conditions is difficult under the best of circumstances. It can be nearly impossible without the right 3PL partners. 

Even the most proactive shippers find themselves needing to move a large quantity of freight on a time crunch occasionally. This is the nature of working in a changeable, reactionary industry. Shippers will want to make sure they are working with the best broker partner possible when the pressure is on. 

“Aggregate flatbed data can be difficult to source so working with a trusted partner who understands the market and is buying large amounts of capacity is important,” Rea said. “We often see situations where shippers need to move large volumes in a short period of time. A specialized broker can spin up capacity quickly by aggregating the smaller carriers in our network.”  

Shippers will likely need to rely on partners with specialized knowledge even more in the future, especially as they continue to move away from yearlong RFPs that have proven to be costly in light of recent freight market volatility. 

Additionally, consolidation among flatbed carriers is expected to continue as larger companies work to expand their scale and smaller companies take advantage of the current seller’s market. This means shippers’ existing carrier relationships could be shaken up in the coming months.

Greater reliance on the spot market — coupled with changing carrier dynamics — will create a stronger need for deep industry insights. Specialized brokers are naturally more prepared to meet this need than their more generalized peers. 

“PGT Services doesn’t look to be all things to all people,” Rea said. “With the tightness in supply chains and fast-moving developments in technology, the market needs specialization and real expertise.”

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