Unloading Containers - Be Prepared When the Goods Land!

Forklift - Sourcejuice

There are a number of variables and obstacles to consider when unloading a container and SourceJuice has you covered with experiential knowledge before your container arrives.

Tools of the Trade
If you have ever worked on a car then you are aware that the right tools make all the difference. Unloading a container is no different in this respect. Here are some of the common items you should have prepared.

  • Loading dock - *most* containers are not like the "POD" units that are able to be slid off the trucks to ground level. See below for your options to get around this requirement.

  • Plywood/lumber/ramp - loading docks do not always line up with the truck, a small ramp may be required.

  • Storage facility

  • Forklift & operator

  • Palletjack - the forklift can't get in everywhere. In addition, broken crates can be hand unloaded to a palletjack and moved in this manner.

  • Proper lighting - even if it is daylight, it can still be dark near the end of the container. It may be necessary to identify the markings on the crates to match with the packing list.

  • Fan (depending on temperature) & fluids - it can get unbelievably hot inside containers, stay cool and stay hydrated.

  • Mask & gloves - the containers are many times fumigated with chemicals and arrive extremely dusty. During the unloading process these harmful particles can become air borne. Mask and gloves are your most basic of safety measures.

  • Hammer, catclaw and hand-saw - depending on your product, the goods are typically packaged in some type of WPM (wood packaging material), crates, etc. The crates are crudely fashioned together with nails or screws. Be aware that these crates are some times stacked and can be damaged in transit. In addition there will not be much space between the crates to work, expect to unload the entire container and then unpackage.

  • Extra pair of hands and feet (workers) on hand

  • Camera & notepad - for notes, inventory, damaged and defective product related uses.

  • Packing list, phone numbers for logistics contacts and customs broker

  • Quickbooks or other inventory system installed and ready for entry.


Time
Time is of the essence when unloading a container. Make all your preparations ahead of time so that the unloading process can be a breeze. Keep in mind there are a lot of people, places and events to manage - all of which cost money if delays occur. Each domestic freight company will be different, but during a delivery, a general rule is: first 2 hours are free, $60/hr thereafter. Call the company providing logistics for delivery and find out their policies.

No Loading Dock?
Believe it or not, this is a common problem for the "newly imported". Many times warehouses are still under construction or circumstances never arose that required such a need for daily business. If this is your business now, get a dock - it will save you time and money! In the mean time here are your options:

  • Cross-dock the container to a warehouse facility that can unload your container and reload it to a flat bed. If you have a good customs broker they can arrange this for a number of fees and some substantial costs. This method will require that the product be in forklift friendly pallets or crates. If they are not, consider having them recrated at the warehouse where they will be cross-docked - this is real expensive. Flatbed trucks are available with "piggy-back" forklifts or you can rent your own. Note that the forklifts that come with the flatbed typically are used for brick pallets (on a brickyard) and hence have rather large tires. Check the sizes of your delivery location's doors before hand. More information relating to the cost of this method can be found on a recent Sourcejuice article: Digging Deeper - Actual Landed Costs Examined.

  • Unload the container by hand. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but you have to play the cards you are dealt. I have unloaded a 20ft container of carton packaged kitchen cabinets with 4-5 workers for 4 hours. I incurred costs from the delivery company for extra time and the workers. The container also showed up late which cost in extra man hours. Typically no matter what you buy from China it will likely be heavy and several feet off the ground, this is not a recipe for success.

  • Borrow a loading dock. Find a trusted company that will allow you to schedule delivery to their location where you can unload. You may consider working out an arrangement for storing your product at their location. What ever you decide, as long as you get the product on the ground, the sky is the limit.


Packaging
To make your import venture the most profitable, you need to get as much product on the container as possible. As with anything in this world, you get what you pay for. Expect to open your container and find wood crates, cardboard cartons or pallets packed all aligned tightly together. Sometimes the product will be stacked on top of one another. Remember, packing a container is not a science, when the factory makes the order they can not account for all variables and sizes. I have ordered granite and not all of it would fit once the order was complete. "We'll catch those countertops on the next order", is another great reason to do inventory first thing upon arrival as you hope the factory informed you of this before the container left China (you never know). There are also weight requirements on containers, so once you hit the mark, that is it. Check out a recent Sourcejuice article on WPM or Wood Packaging Material and how it can affect you at the border.

Inventory/Broken Products/Model Numbers
Your first mission is to unload the entire container and perform an inventory of your shipment. That sounds so easy, but it becomes much more than trivial once the container is standing in front of you. It takes enough time to just unload the crates from the container. Some of your crates will not be sturdy enough to make it the entire trip. Expect to rest the forklift operator for a while and carefully unpack these crates by hand.

You can't exactly ask for a refund! So why do you care?
What is done, is not done! The factory should give you a credit for the broken items that did not make the trip. Check out one of SourceJuice's articles, "Does China Have a Return Policy?" for additional strategies and information. Your cargo insurance will not cover damages unless the entire container was a loss. This is where the camera and notepad come into play. The factory will want proof of the damage. You can't expect them to ask for the items back can you? It is best to unpack the entire container, unpackage the material, sort, organize and inventory it. Quickbooks has a great inventory tool built in if you buy the right version. Start off on the right "business foot", once your business gets going you may never have another opportunity to get it straight. Work with the factory during the ordering process to ensure you have a unique model numbering system for your products. Plan ahead, keep the same scheme across different factories and ensure there is room to expand. I can not tell you how many importers I have witnessed with the most distressing of inventory systems (or none) in place.

Defective Products
Test, Test, Test - that is all there is to say. Do not assume that because the crate looks fine or the product itself looks fine that all is okay. I will give you an example. I purchased over 100 stainless steel kitchen sinks, unpacked the container, unwrapped the boxes and was satisfied with the product. It wasn't until the sinks were installed in one of our construction projects that we realized during a home owner walk-through that all of the water would not drain from the sink. There were small pools left around the drain, which were tell-tale signs of defective material. Test your products, one from every crate if possible. It would have been disastrous if we had sold the sinks on the retail market.

Storage Options

  • Storage Containers (onsite) - Depending on your industry and product, you may want to store your materials onsite for easy installation. If the goods are heavy this may be a good idea. I have purchased and rented a number of containers from ContainerTech out of Georgia and they ship nationally. Prices range starting at $1,400 for aluminum containers to buy and $300 a month to rent. Remember, the container the product arrives in has to go back with the delivery truck.

  • Self Storage Units - make sure the complex can handle turn radiuses for semi-trucks or flatbeds.

  • Warehouse


Be Prepared for Anything
Even the best planning in the world can't account for everything. I have seen entire shipments intricately planned and still there are unforseeable circumstances - like the forklifts were unable to clear loading bay doors. Make sure you have allowed for extra help, workers, time and flexibility in delivery methods. Figure out an exit strategy or backup plan. Time to unload containers is costly, don't lose that "imported from China" landed cost at the final hour.

Don't Forget Insurance
So your shipment has arrived safely, categorized and inventoried. Don't forget to insure it - wholesale goods in unmanned warehouses are a thieves best friend. Remember, thefts can occur as inside and outside jobs. Make sure you have proper security measures in place to detour theft. Again, plan ahead if you are going to install cameras or burglar alarm systems. Theft is another major cost that can increase your landed price per item! If you are using onsite storage containers, consider MobilMini they have incredible locking systems for their containers.

Good luck, it is all on you. If you need our help - we are always here. SourceJuice

Dylan Blankenship signature
dylan@sourcejuice.com // Dylan Blankenship
2008-01-27