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Maersk-Alibaba tie-up a sign of changing times

Danish shipping company Maersk Line and Chinese e-commerce marketplace Alibaba teamed up to provide sellers direct bookings with the container line, marking another development in the rapidly changing ocean freight procurement space.

   Maersk Line has partnered with the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to provide a direct booking link for shippers using Alibaba’s platform, Business Insider reported Wednesday.
   The move essentially allows smaller sellers on the Alibaba marketplace – Amazon’s chief global competitor – a way to book ocean freight with Maersk Line without using a freight forwarder or non-vessel operating common carrier.
   The report said the service was offered from Dec. 22, according to the shipping line.
   It’s part of a growing trend of carriers seeking to more directly control sales with smaller and mid-size shippers, business they have traditionally ceded to capacity resellers and service providers.
   It also continues a trend of Alibaba and Amazon yearning to grow beyond being mere facilitators of product transactions and into providers of direct logistics functions tied to those transactions.
   Both trends place pressure on smaller and mid-sized forwarders and NVOs to clearly define their value proposition to shippers, who may be interested in arranging and booking freight directly through a digital platform (whether that platform is with a single carrier or a neutral freight marketplace).
   At the same time, there are digital platforms aiming to arm forwarders and NVOs with better ways to reach those same customers. The question that many small forwarders and NVOs face is whether they can afford to invest in the technology to keep up. Or more pertinently, whether they can afford not to invest.
   Incidentally, Alibaba already has a partnership with Flexport, the startup forwarder, in which small shippers can use Flexport’s services directly through the Alibaba platform. The Balitmore-based freight forwarder and customs broker Shapiro, meanwhile, is an example of a service provider that aids sellers on Amazon through the Fulfilled by Amazon program.
   Lars Jensen, chief executive officer of SeaIntelligence Consulting, told American Shipper Tuesday that he sees carriers more than ever focused on automation of the front-end of the booking process, whereas they have previously been focused on technology that powers the customer service elements of their business (in other words, the processes that occur after the booking has taken place).
   Efforts to evolve traditional ocean freight procurement are underway on many fronts, from direct carrier-marketplace partnerships like Maersk and Alibaba; to ocean freight marketplaces like Haven, iContainer, Simpliship and Freightos; to platforms that digitize the interaction between small forwarders and neutral NVOs, like CoLoadX.