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October 05, 2021

NMFC Number vs Freight Class: What Are They and What’s the Difference?

Logistics manager looking up NMFC numbers online-1When dealing with LTL freight (Less-than-a-Truckload), you're going to be hearing the terms "NMFC number" and "freight class" a fair amount. They're both important when it comes to using LTL shipping, so it's equally important that you understand what these terms mean. While you'll sometimes hear these terms used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two, and the distinction is far from arbitrary.  

To make sure you're prepared to handle issues related to LTL shipments, make an informed choice between shipping methods and carriers, deal with any issues that may arise, and keep your LTL shipping costs low and your added fees to a minimum, there are some things you'll need to know. Let's define the terms NMFC number and freight class, discuss important topics surrounding both and answer some of the most important and common FAQs to get you up to speed.

What's the Difference Between an NMFC Number and a Freight Class?

Any commodity you might want to ship has both a distinct NMFC number and a more general freight class. Every commodity is given a unique number to identify it (the NMFC number), much like a serial number. Then all the items are broken into separate categories based on specific criteria.

While all goods have an individual number, each NMFC number is sorted into broader categories known as freight classes. While freight class is very helpful, it isn't always specific enough, which is why both are important. Let's get into the specifics of each to clarify them.

What Is an NMFC Number?

The National Motor Freight Traffic Association (NMFTA) keeps a database of each commodity's unique NMFC number as a universal identifier. The point of the database is to give shippers and LTL carriers a common frame of reference for an item's freight class to simplify pricing negotiations.

What Is a Freight Class?

Freight class is a standard system for classifying LTL shipments to gauge the level of difficulty or efficiency of the shipping process for each commodity. The more labor-intensive the goods are to ship, the higher the freight class will be, raising the cost. There are 18 separate freight classes in total, and a number between 50 and 500 represents each of them. 50 is the lowest freight class and therefore the most cost-effective, while 500 is the highest and most expensive.  

How Can You Determine Freight Class?

Freight class is based on four separate measures of transportability:

1. Density

Density measures the weight distribution in pounds per cubic foot. This correlates with ease of transport. The denser your shipment is, the less the shipping costs. It sounds counterintuitive. However, heavy, compact shipments of metal or stone are actually easier to move. Despite being heavier, they're smaller, and the weight is concentrated, making it less likely to shift around during transport.

2. Handling

Measuring ease-of-handling helps carriers determine if it will:

  • Be difficult to move around
  • Require more manpower (which means paying more employees)
  • Need any additional equipment or safety measures

3. Stowability

A shipment's stowability is all about how well it fits into the truck with the other shipments. LTL requires loading a truck full of different shipments that weren't big enough to fill a truck on their own. The more easily it fits by having a smaller, more uniform shape or being generally rectangular, the more they'll be able to fit per truck, saving them money.   

4. Liability

The more likely an item is to be stolen, the more valuable it is, or the more fragile it is, the more liability the carrier takes on. They have to ensure that it arrives safely and intact, which may require excess packing material, additional precautions, or even guards.

What Does This Mean for Shipping Costs?

The cost to ship an item will go up as the freight class increases. Likewise, the cost will be lower the denser it is, the easier it is to handle, the better it fits in the truck, and the less liability it puts on the company.

All those things affect the freight class based on how easy or difficult it is for the company to get it to its destination. Each factor also weighs on the carrier's cost to move it in the same way. The harder it is to ship, the more it costs them, and therefore, you.

When Do I Need to Know the NMFC Number?

Lumber business owner looking up the NMFC number for an upcoming shipment-1The specific goods being shipped will affect the level of difficulty and exact methods needed to move them. The freight class gives them a general idea of transportability. So that's often, though not always, all you need to get an accurate quote. However, the NMFC number will tell the exact type of goods being moved and allow them to be more precise.

When it's time to create the Bill of Lading (BOL), you'll want to have the exact NMFC number to provide much more precise details. This will make it less likely that your shipment will be classed incorrectly by mistake and need to be reclassed later, changing the price.

How Do I Find a Commodity's NMFC Number?

The NMFTA has a record of all the NMFC numbers with the associated freight class and additional details. You can find them all in the National Motor Freight Classification®. You can purchase a physical copy of the NMFC Directory or subscribe to the digital version, ClassIT, with a searchable database.

When Do I Need to Know the Freight Class?

In order to get an LTL shipping quote, you'll need the eCommerce shipment's freight class. Since that's how they determine the cost of shipping, you'll always need that upfront to even get a basic understanding of the freight rates you should expect. Before you approach a carrier about your LTL shipment, make sure you know the freight class. Without that information, they can't tell you anything.

How Do I Find a Commodity's Freight Class?

There are freight class calculators available online for free from a number of different LTL carriers. A combination of the four factors listed above determine the freight class. However, they don't all weigh equally on the final result. The largest factor by far is density, and that, more often than not, largely determines your freight class.

That's why many so-called freight class calculators actually just determine the shipment's density by multiplying the length, width, and height to get the volume of the LTL shipment, converting the result into cubic feet, and dividing by the weight. That's not always the case, though. FedEx's freight class calculator, for example, asks you to select a category, as well.

Better Together

Before the NMFTA created the NMFC Directory as a universal database of all the NMFC numbers and corresponding freight class data for LTL shipments, eCommerce sellers and carriers had no way to determine what price was really fair for any given shipment. That meant that getting a quote from three different carriers could mean three wildly different estimates.

Creating the criteria for measuring freight class put everyone on the same page. Everyone now had the same information to judge a fair price for each shipment. Creating the NMFC numbers allows them to be easily sorted into groups of like items with similar freight classes that could be easily located.

These two things together revolutionized LTL pricing. While they are both incredibly important and very much interdependent on one another, they are in no way the same. Understanding the difference between them is crucial for the system to work if you want an accurate quote.

If you have any questions about NMFC numbers and freight quotes or want to learn more about how Eniture can help your business by streamlining your shipping processes and making your business more efficient, feel free to contact us.

About Eniture Technology

Eniture Technology specializes in helping e-Commerce merchants grow by providing useful information, digital marketing services, off-the-shelf apps that solve common problems, and custom programming services. Please contact us if you need help growing your online business or implementing the concepts presented in this blog post.

If you are interested in offering LTL freight as an option on your online store, take advantage of our free guide on LTL freight.

LTL Freight Primer - Free Guide


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