fcl vs lcl shipping

FCL vs LCL Shipments: Complete Guide for eCommerce Sellers

LCL and FCL are two terms you will get yourself very familiar with if you’re running an eCommerce business that ships in products from overseas.

LCL and FCL refer to the two main type shipments utilizing containers that sellers use to get their products from another country into another country to sell.

In this post, we’ll go over the differences between FCL and LCL shipping, what they are, and when you would want to use one over the other.

Also as a bonus I’ll show you the best way to get instant quotes for every type of freight shipment instantly and for free!

What is an FCL Shipment?

FCL stands for “Full Container Load” and is when you fill an entire container with products and ship them overseas.

What is an LCL Shipment?

LCL stands for “Less-than Container Load” and is when you fill up a partial amount of space on a container to ship your products and share the remaining space with other sellers’ products.

The difference between LCL and FCL shipping.

As the names and definitions above make it obvious, FCL is when a seller fills up an entire container, and LCL is when a seller only partially fills up a container and shares the remaining space with others.

When You Should Use LCL

While the difference between FCL and LCL being obvious, there are only a few scenarios where you would want to choose LCL over FCL:

  • Your shipment is small and you can’t fill a container. If you’re starting out in eCommerce and product volume isn’t high, you simply can’t buy 10 or 20 pallets worth of product initially. For this reason, if you’re still in the 1-6 pallet range for orders, stick with LCL.
  • You’re testing a new product/manufacturer. Similar to the previous, when you’re trying out a new product manufactured somewhere else than your typical factory, LCL can be a good way to test the waters and gauge market viability.
  • When LCL rate edges out FCL. When your shipment is around 8-15 pallets, it comes down to what is the more cost effective option. Compare rates between FCL and LCL when your shipment is hitting this 10-15 pallet range.
  • When a container isn’t available. This is rare, but there is the case where a physical container isn’t available for you to use, but LCL shipments typically always have availability.

Basically any time you don’t want to fill a container up or can’t, you’re better off going LCL.

Negatives Around LCL – What to Know

LCL isn’t perfect by any means, and carries a handful of weaknesses that will make you want to get to full container shipping as soon as possible:

  • 1000 kg limit per pallet. This isn’t mentioned a lot, but your pallets are limited to 1000 kg maximum using LCL. This may sound like enough, but many products can easily hit that limit and not even be stacked halfway up the height of the container. By contrast, full container pallets can be 1440 kg or sometimes even heavier. That’s roughly 50% more efficiency from a single pallet, which is huge in terms of cost savings.
  • Other sellers problems become your problems. While most shipments go smoothly, if ANY product from another seller you’re sharing container space with gets flagged for any reason, your products will be tied up with theirs until their issues are resolved.
  • It generally takes longer. With LCL you have less control of when your products are free to be picked up. You have to wait for the container to be filled up, and when it lands, the container your products are on have to be “deconsolidated”, which means they have to be unloaded from the container they are on with other sellers’ products, then moved to a warehouse, then put on another truck again if they have a final destination that’s further away.
  • LCL shipments lose their appeal when shipments get larger than 5 pallets. LCL shines in the 1-4 pallet range. Beyond that, you should start looking at 20′ (10 pallets) and 40′ (20 pallets) Full Container Loads, as you’ll run into problems sticking with LCL like really high rates, lack of space availability in a container, and being forced to split shipment onto multiple containers.

When You Should Use FCL Shipments

  • You are looking to maximize efficiency. Full containers can be packed to the brim with little fear of pallet height restrictions or weight restrictions. While there is a weight limit to a full container, it’s pretty heavy (roughly 21,000 kg – 26,000 kg).
  • You can easily fill 1 or multiple containers. If you can get to that magical 20 pallets of product or close to it, FCL is easily superior to LCL and you should likely leave LCL behind forever (unless there’s special circumstances).
  • You need speed. FCL is faster and is prone to almost none of the slowdowns that LCL has. Also if you have the capability you can have the entire container picked up from the port, offloaded at your warehouse, and sent back to the port to save a ton of time, work, and money.

Negatives of FCL Shipping

  • Expensive. With post-pandemic rates pushing full container prices higher than ever with no return to pre-pandemic levels in sight, FCL is now a big cost.
  • Containers can be unavailable. While this issue has been mostly sorted out in 2022, temporary container shortages do occur, leaving you out of an available container to put your products in.

Secret Hack: How to Check FCL/LCL Rates On Your Own

There are many, many ways to get sea freight booked to schedule and LCL or FCL shipment.

However, a big issue is this: How do you know the rate you’re getting from your freight forwarder, or your freight agent, or if the internal freight shipping your manufacturer offers is a good deal and that you’re not getting ripped off?

Enter Freightos.

Freightos is a site like Expedia or Kayak, but instead of booking a flight for yourself, they book LCL and FCL shipments for products being sent across the world.

screenshot of freightos shipment builder
Getting real time freight rates is as easy as filling 4 fields.

You can create an account instantly with them (most freight forwarding sites do not let you do this), and you can start checking rates based on criteria immediately. You don’t have to pay for your account and you’re not committed to make a purchase for just browsing rates.

Even if you don’t use them, it’s good to know where rates on your potential shipment stand when you’re shopping around.

When a freight forwarder gives you a quote, or your manufacturer suggests using their internal freight agent to get your products shipped, compare any quote they give you with Freightos to check if their prices are within what the market is currently demanding.

Conclusion

In the eCommerce world, knowledge truly is power. Knowing how to get the best rates, knowing what shipment type is best for your products, and knowing how to avoid certain pitfalls that can lead to charges and slowdowns will benefit you greatly in the long run.

When you know just a bit more, there’s less that can catch you off guard and ruin your day, and in the eCommerce business, one less headache is worth a lot!