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Air freight would certainly avoid the ports, but how does owning your own containers get them through the ports faster?

It does - potentially - if you do certain things.

1. Ports are (were) refusing to accept empties “if they were not the right color” (60 Minutes). [I’m guessing shippers designate their containers by color in the same way that hotels designate their sheets by the color of their thread stitching?] That means that certain shippers/vendors were not getting their empties back so they could be reloaded and shipped again to the US. And since there was (is) a crunch on new containers they were unable to buy enough to solve the problem in any other way than air freight, which is vastly more expensive and not worth it for some weightier, low value goods (think: dishware, fireplace grates, etc.)

2. If you own your own containers and have the size of Amazon you can charter your own smaller ships, fill them with your own stuff, charge your vendors for shipping (at a premium, probably), and use secondary ports to receive. Since it is not a mixed container ship coming in and you have warehouses everywhere, you can transship the stuff to your other warehouses yourself rather than hope mid-level distribution centers get the stuff and ship it timely to the Amazon warehouses where it’s going anyway.

3. A smaller shipper may not have the option of using a secondary port since they rely on the existing infrastructure to get their products to destinations from the major ports which are set up to handle and split such cargoes and they’re probably hustled onto the newer, gigantor “more efficient” cargo vessels. Amazon, if it has that issue at all, has its own infrastructure which presumably could handle much of that itself.

4. There are over 30 ports capable of containerization in the US, but after the top 3 the volume drops off dramatically. In fact in many of these smaller locales the volume has actually gone negative the past year, even as the largest ports increased 10% or more, with ships waiting in the channel to offload.

5. Chartering a smaller vessel with only or mostly your own containers is probably easier now that there are gigantors running the Panama route and elsewhere, and there are many ports which can’t accommodate them because of size.

6. And you won’t get caught up in the “no trailers” and “no empties” issue that has confounded some of the larger ports lately (again, 60 Minutes)

This is all speculation on my part, I ain’t no expert in freight logistics, but the big guys (Walmart, Amazon, Apple, etc.) have dedicated teams devoted to just such issues (I’m sure Apple is mostly air freight, but the principle is the same) and have the scale to make it worthwhile. So yes, I’d guess that it can be more efficient.

Google tells me that it costs less than $400 to ship an empty container back to China ($250-$450), and that a new, no frills container costs $1200 and up. “Frills” include waterproofing, ventilation, skylights (for plants, presumably), insulation, etc. which can put the price north of $5,000 depending on how many customizations you add.
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