The majority of items we buy, such as clothes, furniture and electronics, have been imported in shipping containers. These huge metal boxes, as the name suggests, are filled with goods and placed on ships that depart from the Far East and deliver to Europe and America.
Any regular motorway user will have seen shipping containers being transported on the back of lorries, on their way to warehouses and distribution centres. The containers are taken off the vessel and the freight forwarder takes it from there.
The history of containerisation began in the 1950s when a transport mogul named Malcolm McLean realised that the military were able to move much more goods using large containers. Goods being sealed away also meant an increased level of confidentiality, so not so liable to theft.
Without dividing the contents of the cargo into containers, it would be much more difficult to keep all the stock secure and separate. Imagine a huge ship arriving in Southampton or Felixstowe. A freight forwarder is tasked with retrieving 100,000 pairs of boots in order to distribute to 10 locations in the UK. Without containers the vessel would be divided up by region, product type and consignee, but it would still be difficult to isolate and identify the exact goods you need.
There are several million shipping containers in circulation around the world, and it is thought that over 5 million are currently en route, travelling by sea, rail or road. The standard sizes of shipping container are 20ft or 40ft, which is the length of the container. Most are 8.5ft high, but high-cube containers are one foot taller.
This standardised size makes it straight forward for every part of the supply chain to plan their output, since order quantities and consignments can be determined using this simple denomination.