For more than 80 years, the National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) standard has determined the freight classes for motor carriers. Based on four key factors — density, handling, stowability, and liability — it provides a standardized set of items and rules for classifying freight.
This system plays an important role in making billing more predictable for shippers and load planning smoother for carriers, so everyone knows what to expect from the shipping process.
However, in practice, it can sometimes be complex and take shippers time to learn how to properly navigate it. Freight classification mistakes and inaccurate or incomplete bills of lading can lead to confusion, delays, and unexpected charges on final bills. If the carrier has to reclassify freight because it was entered incorrectly, it takes time and energy and incurs clerical costs on both the shipper and carrier. Unanticipated fees are reflected on the carrier’s invoice and then either absorbed by the shipper or passed on to their customers, which can have negative effects on both shippers and carriers.
Shippers that want predictability in their pricing should be working with a transportation partner that can help them learn the system and navigate it quickly, easily, to avoid surprises.
The freight classification system can initially be challenging to learn, and classifications can shift as the contents of shipping loads differ or with annual updates to the regulations. As a result, misclassification of freight is all too common.
“On average, more than half of freight is misclassified,” says Erin Topper, director of pricing services for Old Dominion. Topper worked at NMFTA for 18 years and most recently led the Freight Classification Development Council (FCDC), before joining OD in 2023.
“The NMFC system is intended to provide shippers and carriers with a standard that compares the hundreds of thousands of types of commodities that go through the LTL network by establishing classes based on the four transportation characteristics. There are also numerous rules in the NMFC that guide shippers and carriers in properly packaging and loading freight. Since the classification must account for any commodity a company might tender to a carrier at any time, it used to have individualized items for a particular commodity or set of commodities. Over the last year and a half, the classification has been simplified and numerous items consolidated, but even those changes may be hard for individual shippers to track.”
Most shippers would prefer to focus on their day-to-day business operations rather than keeping up with the NMFC changes. That's why shippers need to partner with a carrier that will help them ensure their freight classification is correct and help them avoid pricing adjustments on their final bills.
Old Dominion recently worked with a customer who ships industrial air filters to resolve a freight classification issue. The customer had previously shipped their products under the proper NMFC air filter machine class. Then, they noticed that their class had suddenly changed to a designation for cabinets.
This increased their freight bill by hundreds of dollars. This customer contacted their OD Solution Specialist who worked with OD’s Weights and Inspections team to request a ruling from the NMFTA to understand the classification change better.
Within a matter of days, the OD team explained to the customer that the class change happened because of the way the product was shipped. The air filter product included two parts, a cabinet and an air filter. The shipper started getting increased costs because the cabinet and air filter were being shipped separately. So, the rate changed simply because the product didn't have the filter attached.
Based on their work with the NMFTA, OD was able to come back to the customer with the correct NMFC item number, an explanation in the change, and a solution that could help the customer reduce their shipping costs moving forward.
OD has found that the most effective approach to navigating the NMFC system is by providing one-to-one consultation to ensure their customers know how their shipment is classified and how to properly complete their bills of lading.
“We never want to let our customers down or have them end up with surprises on their freight bill,” says Todd Polen, vice president of pricing services at Old Dominion. “Our entire business is founded on service and trust.”
“Our customers want to know their freight is protected, and they can rely on their shipping costs to be predictable. People want their invoices to match the rates they were quoted. That’s why we dedicate so many people within the company to understanding the NMFC, and helping our customers classify their freight correctly upfront. And why everyone who ships with us also gets personalized assistance from our solutions specialists.” Polen said.
What matters at the end of the day is that shippers know how their freight is classified, that they are given an accurate estimate, and that there are no surprises on their final bill. When in doubt, get in touch with your carrier and let them know about any changes to your shipments’ weight, packaging, or any shifts in the commodity of your freight. No matter what you want to ship, OD is here to make it predictable while helping you deliver your customer's promises.