Blog Chinese Importing Shipping & Logistics

Understanding Container Shipping


An empty container awaiting to billed

An empty container awaiting to be filled

A lot of people understand that most shipments coming from China are shipped in containers (aside from some small shipments which might go via air). If you’ve ever approached any major water way, you’ve likely seen one of these monster container ships.  And even if you don’t live by any water, you’ve certainly seen a cargo train or semi-truck pulling one or more containers. Still, the concept of container shipping can still be confusing. The first thing to understand with containers is that they come in three varieties:

20′ Container: Holds 27-28 CBM (cubic meters)
40′ Container General Purpose: Holds 55-60CBM
40′ High Cube: Holds 65-70 CBM

There’s no real difference between these three types of containers except for capacity.

On an aside, if you’re from North America the concept of CBM is probably as painful as trying t0 determine your height in centimeters. However, you have to learn to be comfortable with CBM measurements and develop an appreciation as to what 2 CBM of cargo looks like or 10 CBM of cargo looks like. Everything is measured in CBM.

When you have a container load of product shipped you are essentially leasing that container for the duration of the trip. The easiest way to think of it is like renting a U-Haul truck when you’re moving (in fact, a lot of people do rent containers when moving, especially overseas).  When you rent a U-Haul, you’re free to pack your boxes of old university books and whatever other items you have however you want. The same goes for renting a container in China. The only difference is that you’re not driving that container around (some trucking company is) and you’re not loading that container (your supplier is).

This might seem like a ‘no s#!t’ fact, but think about how this compares with, say, UPS. If you order a new Samsung LCD TV, some UPS driver is loading your TV onto a truck with hundreds of other items. The driver might throw it haphazardly into the back of the truck. He might put a box of bowling balls on it. He might do who knows what to your poor TV.

Now consider if you bought a Haier (a famous Chinese electronics brand) LCD TV from a supplier in Guangzhou, China and for some reason you rented a 20′ container to ship it. Your supplier can put your TV in that container however they think best or you think best. If you want to fill the entire container with Styrofoam packing peanuts you can do that! If you just want your supplier to lay the TV face up in the container, that’s fine too and you can rest assured it won’t be touched by anything human or non-human until you open the container door.

Now building on that point, as this container is yours to do what you want with, you can pack it with other products as well. You can save a bunch of money if you’re importing multiple products from the same area as you can simply request the freight company to go to Supplier A and pick up your goods and then go to Supplier B and pick up your other goods. It would be like if you were renting a moving truck to move some stuff from Los Angeles to Miami and then found out how you had a friend in L.A. who also needed some stuff moved to Miami – you guys would probably load the same truck and split the costs.

Notice I mentioned that “You can save a bunch of money if you’re importing multiple products from the same area“. New importers often overlook how big China is. If you were moving from Los Angeles to Miami and you found your friend from Seattle was also moving to Miami, you probably wouldn’t offer to drive up to Seattle and pick up his stuff. The same thing goes with China. Yes, Beijing and Guangzhou might seem relatively close in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of freight, any savings you would get from sharing a container would likely be outweighed by the cost of transporting a container from Shanghai to Beijing. Always keep distances within China in perspective.

Hopefully this gives you the idea that shipping something in a container isn’t really that foreign of a concept. Once you can get your head around it, it’ll make shipping your products all that much easier.

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