How to Choose a Freight Forwarder

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International shipping can be integral to business growth in this age of globalisation, and a freight forwarder can make the journey overseas less daunting. Here are some tips for how to choose a freight forwarder for your business:


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You’ve built a thriving business throughout Ireland and are curious to find out whether you can have the same success overseas.

To build those new export markets you will need to find trusted partners and distributors and research where the customer demand for your products is likely to be greatest.

What you must also do is work out how you are going to transport those products to Europe, Asia or the Americas and ensure that they reach their end location – be it a warehouse or a shop – efficiently and in good condition.

There are many complexities and challenges in this process from customs clearance to transport documentation and determining the best mode of travel for your product type.

It is why many SMEs use freight forwarders to ease the burden, so they can concentrate on the strategic thinking behind stoking their international growth.

What is a freight forwarder?

According to the Irish International Freight Association (IIFA) it is defined as the business of ‘deciding the best modes and methods for moving specific goods according to a specific requirement on a worldwide scale’. It describes freight forwarders as being like a travel agent for cargo or, indeed, an architect.

Freight forwarders advise their clients – such as manufacturers and exporters – on the most appropriate options for the movement of their cargo and also offer guidance on specialist considerations including the carriage of dangerous goods and the handling of unique cargo types. They will select, negotiate and book the most cost-effective transport service, be it air, ocean or land transportation.

Forwarders are also familiar with the import rules and regulations of foreign countries and the necessary documents related to foreign trade. They will also carry out customs clearance, duty and VAT payments, even marine insurance cover.


Recommended Reading: Paul O’Regan Shares Top Tips for Exporters


Why use a freight forwarder?

“We are the link between the SME and the airlines or ocean liners,” explains Glen Warnock, CEO of Emerald Freight Express. “If you want to export your product from Dublin to New York, it’s not as simple as making a call to Aer Lingus – the airlines will only deal with freight forwarders. You can call ocean-shipping services direct to get a rate, but freight forwarders are there to negotiate for you and can get a better price. That’s because we have close relationships with transport services and can piggyback your load to others at agreed contract rates. On your own you’re unlikely to have the buying power and the volumes to secure a space on the boat.”

Warnock adds that the knowledge and experience of the shipping industry brought by a freight forwarder is also valuable, including insight surrounding container fees, packaging, terminal handling, shipping regulations, broker fees and transit time.

“We know the routes inside out. We know the airlines that go direct to a destination and those that go halfway round Europe, say, to get to Brazil,” he says.

“Some of the journeys can be ridiculously long and we can give our clients a choice – higher rates but a more direct route, or a lower rate for a longer transit. We can’t avoid unexpected delays, but we can keep you up to date through our tracking services rather than you trying to figure out where in the world your load is.”


“Do your research and choose on reputation, competencies and a forwarder’s track record working with firms of your type or scale”

Aidan Flynn, General Manager, FTA Ireland


A forwarder can also provide added-value services such as quality control, where representatives in exporting countries are invited to visit a manufacturer’s factories before an import order is made.

Warnock stresses that freight forwarders can be just as important when importing. “If not, your supplier handles the process, meaning you give away control and transparency and you have no choice on which shipping line your container moves on,” he says, adding there is a plus side to this: “You also have no one fighting for your space when it’s a busy time.”

How do I find the right forwarder for my business?

When it comes to choosing a freight forwarder – which can increasingly be done via online platforms which compare freight rates, through direct contact or through word of mouth – SMEs have a range of choices.

They can go for companies that only carry out freight-forwarding activities; integrated logistics providers that combine these with owning their own modes of transport, such as trucks and warehouses; or specialist firms that focus on a certain geographic locations or product types.

“You must look carefully at your own needs to determine what level of service or expertise you require,” states Howard Knott, logistics consultant at the Irish Exporters Association. “Will you be needing warehousing for your goods or making multiple deliveries? If you’re transporting cars or food such as mushrooms, then you need a specific type of trailer given the cargo’s shelf life.”

Knott recommends talking to other companies in a similar situation to yourself to see how they transport their goods. “You could even look to build your own network through working together with other companies delivering to the same destination and choosing the best freight forwarder between you,” he adds.


Recommended Reading: Embarking On International Business 


Aidan Flynn, general manager of the Freight Transport Association (FTA) Ireland, agrees that scale is vital. “You need it to get the best rates and that’s where freight forwarders can help by consolidating loads. It’s hard to do that as a sole SME,” he states.

“The integrated logistics providers could be a good choice if they have more transport links and better networks which meet your needs, but an independent freight forwarder may be easier to build a relationship with to get good rates. Do your research and choose on reputation, competencies and a forwarder’s track record working with firms of your type or scale. Get comparative quotes and look at quality assurance, how they deal with delays and if they have knowledge of your product. It may be worth paying more for that.”

What are the alternatives to using a freight forwarder?

There are other routes you can take, such as using pallet networks, where regional transport hubs collaborate to deliver groupage shipments. An SME can also go direct to its chosen hauliers and over time build up their own transport network – but again they need to have the volumes to secure the space as well as the in-house logistics skills.

Whatever their choice, the need for SMEs to do their homework on international shipping will be heightened by Brexit.

“There could be additional checks, administrative burdens and increased costs,” warns Flynn. “There will be more uncertainties such as port delays. The skills to be able to manage these and engage with your customers and suppliers in a good manner will help ease the passage of your products.”

The overriding convenience in using freight forwarders will remain, however, no matter what Brexit brings.

“Don’t put your core business on the backburner by focusing too much on transport and chasing shipments. Hand over the responsibility,” Warnock says.

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