Shipfusion Blog

Will the Panama Canal Delays Impact Ecommerce Businesses?

The recent Panama Canal delays, caused by prolonged drought and climate change, have supply chain experts and ecommerce professionals on high alert.

The Panama Canal, often regarded as a linchpin in global trade, is currently facing severe operational disruptions. Historically low water levels have resulted in a rapidly growing queue of vessels awaiting passage. For ships, average wait times have escalated to 9-11 days, but the repercussions for global supply chains could continue for far longer as water-conserving restrictions are to remain in place for the next 10 months.

Ecommerce relies heavily on efficient and predictable shipping, and the delays at the Canal are causing ripples through the supply chain. With roughly 40% of U.S. container traffic moving through the Canal, American ecommerce companies, gearing up for peak sales periods like the Black Friday-Cyber Monday and Christmas seasons, are finding themselves in a precarious position.

What does this mean for ecommerce?

For the ecommerce industry, disruptions due to the Panama Canal delays could mean:

  • Increased Shipping Costs: With the rise in operational expenses, consumers might bear the brunt with higher product prices.
  • Delayed Deliveries: Longer wait times at the Canal could cascade down to consumers waiting longer for their online orders.
  • Stock Shortages: Inventory for some ecommerce businesses might be affected, leading to potential stockouts during crucial sales periods.
  • Strategic Rerouting: Businesses might need to seek alternative routes or methods, adding to operational complexities.

Industry experts like Niels Rasmussen, a chief shipping analyst at BIMCO, are concerned that this congestion might lead to inevitable freight rate increases, a cost that would likely be passed down to consumers. “The longer the situation persists the bigger the chances are of further freight rate increases and the likelihood that shippers will begin to divert cargo back to the US west coast ports and use rail to bring the cargo to its final destination,” Rasmussen said.

As the Canal authorities impose weight and other limits – cutting the depth limit for larger vessels from 50 feet to 43.5 feet and reducing daily transits to just 32 vessels a day – ships are forced to lighten their loads, adding more costs. Some are offloading containers onto trains to meet draft levels, leading to higher transportation expenses. Such cost escalations could eventually get passed on to consumers, potentially raising shipping and ecommerce product prices.

Possible Solutions

One of the short-term alternatives businesses are considering amid these challenges is rerouting ships around the southern tip of South America or through the Suez Canal, both of which are costly and time-consuming options. And for ecommerce businesses relying on timely deliveries, such delays could lead to stock shortages, hampered sales, and customer dissatisfaction.

In the long term, many U.S. firms are considering near-shoring their production to countries like Mexico to circumvent the Canal’s persistent issues. However, shifting production requires significant infrastructure investments, including more truckers and warehouse space.

As the situation evolves, experts like Andy Lane, a partner at shipping advisory CTI Consultancy, call for coordinated action between global shipping bodies and the Panama Canal Authority. The crisis highlights the vulnerability of key trade routes like the Panama Canal to climate change, and raises urgent questions about how the global community can adapt and mitigate these growing threats to essential infrastructure.

Have an ecommerce business, or involved with supply chains? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter below to stay up to date with what’s happening in supply chain and logistics!