When shipping your goods from China (or nearly any other country) you have a couple of options in terms of Sea Freight: you can fill up an entire container (FCL, or Full Container Load) and have it shipped to you or you can fill up part of a container (Less than Container Load) and share it with a bunch of other people. For LCL shipments your freight forwarder will arrange to have your container filled with other people’s shipments (there’s no shortage of demand for LCL freight in China!). Don’t worry- you don’t have to call around to a bunch of factories in China asking if they would like to share a container with you.
There’s pros and cons to both methods. An exhaustive list would be longer than this but below are some of the main thoughts along with things which might not be entirely obvious on the surface.
+You and your supplier control entirely how your freight is packed
+Transport costs in your home country can be lower
-You need to order bigger/and or your supplier might persuade you to buy more product than you really need
For me the biggest advantage of FCL is you and your supplier can control entirely how your goods are packed. You’re renting the entire container and you’re free to do what you like with it inside. You can fill the entire thing with packing peanuts if you want. For transport from your home port of your container, it generally works out cheaper pound for pound (or CBM for CBM) than FCL (generally in my experience I’ll pay around $300 to move a few pallets or $1000 to move an entire container which can hold dozens of pallets).
The biggest downside to FCL is, of course, that you need to fill the container or come close to filling it. I’ve heard a general rule of thumb is that you need at least 15-20 CBM worth of goods to make filling a 20′ container worth it. If you make an order to fill an entire 20′ container it’s not unheard of for your supplier to come back to you after production and say that it turns out all of your goods won’t fit in a 20′ container so how about you order a 40′ container worth of goods instead.
+Good option for smaller shipments
-Goods can go missing and/or get damaged more easily
-Pound for pound (or CBM for CBM) more expensive
-Can take longer
LCL is a great option for smaller shipments, especially below 15CBM. If you’re somewhere in the 5CBM-15CBM range then LCL freight is generally your go to option. And overall, LCL freight is very affordable: around $50-150/CBM generally at the time of writing.
However, there are serious drawbacks to LCL freight, most importantly in terms of loss of control. If you’ve ever seen YouTube videos showing FedEx or UPS man-handling packages, throwing them around, and cramming them into the back of a delivery truck then you’ve seen a comparable example of LCL freight. While it’s harder to throw around a pallet full of products than a small box from Amazon, fork lifts can work magic and damage your shipments! With that being said, shipments do tend to be handled with some degree of care.
With LCL shipments there’s also a lot more room for things to go wrong. When you have a pallet of goods being crammed in a container with a dozen other people’s products, there’s an increased likelihood your pallet will go missing or get mixed up with someone else’s. It’s rare (and hopefully insurance covers any such cases) but it does happen. LCL shipments can take longer, simply by nature of the fact the freight forwarder must arrange to get multiple people’s shipments loaded into one container and unloaded once it arrives.
In conclusion, the vast majority of the time you’ll have little choice in how you ship your products. If you have 30CBM worth of goods, LCL freight isn’t really an option. If you have 5CBM FCL freight equally is not an option. However, in the border-line cases where you have 15-20CBM worth of goods, it’s important to keep the pros and cons of both LCL and FCL freight in mind.
Dave Bryant has been importing from China for over 10 years and has started numerous product brands. He sold his multi-million dollar ecommerce business in 2016 and create another 7-figure business within 18 months. He’s also a former Amazon warehouse employee of one week.