Trade Imbalances Result in Shipping Container Bargains

Driving past the docks in any west coast port, one will see stacks and stacks of shipping containers coming in from overseas or loaded up with American goods destined for foreign markets. Even these dockyards filled with containers don’t reveal the true magnitude of shipping container usage throughout the world. A report in US News and World Report’s online edition estimates that there are 17 million shipping containers either being transported on ships or sitting in freight yards waiting to be shipped.

Almost every country in the world receives goods by container. Even those that are landlocked are likely receiving loaded containers by rail from the nearest port. It is simply the cheapest, easiest, most secure way to ship bulk goods around the world. Of course, not every country has a thriving export economy. Those without large amounts of export goods often end up with hundreds or thousands more containers arriving than are required for return shipments. When this happens someone either needs to pay to ship an empty container back across the ocean to a country with plenty of exports waiting to be shipped out, or the container company needs to find a way to recover as much the cost of the container as they can if they decide to leave it in the destination country.

In many cases, the container itself has substantial value as a commodity. They are often sold to local dealers who convert them into storage sheds, jobsite office buildings, or even housing units. They are then either sold or leased in the country where they wind up. For the container shipping company, selling the containers for a portion of its original cost often makes more sense than paying several thousand dollars to have it returned empty by ship for re-use.

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue of Hofstra University suggests that as many as half of all containers arriving in the United States from overseas will be sent back overseas empty. That’s after subtracting those that are sold to American container resellers, modifiers, and leasing companies.

With this ready supply of shipping containers in the United States and, indeed, in many countries around the world, it’s no wonder that they are finding growing popularity for use outside of the shipping industry. With such a large imbalance in the number of incoming versus outgoing containers in new or like new shipping containers are almost always available for sale or lease.

Still, even these repurposed shipping containers may need to be moved across the country by truck or rail to find their final destination. Those within a short drive of the west coast ports, therefore can often expect to get the lowest bargain prices when buying or leasing storage containers while those farther inland may have to assume some additional transportation costs to have it brought to them.

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