Logistics: Should I use Airfreight or Seafreight when importing products for my ecommerce business?

The seafreight or aifreight question is an important one with any ecommerce store who imports their own goods. If you’re importing you can’t escape shipping charges unfortunately. Deciding whether to import products yourself is an entirely different kettle of fries and I provide some insight into this article here: sourcing product suppliers. The two major differences between airfreight and seafreight are naturally, cost and time. Shipping companies will charge you according to the physical weight or the volumetric weight. Volumetric weight is calculated by the physical dimensions of the cargo divided by 5000. So for example a box with the following dimensions: 120cm x 100cm x 80cm / 5000 = 192kgs. That would mean that the chargeable weight for this shipment would be 192kgs, even if the physical weight is 80kgs. So you can see why it’s important to know what you’re shipping and get quotes before committing to one method or the other. After a few shipments you’ll get a feel for which one to use. One thing to note from below is I’ll use the term “shipping”, this applies to both airfreight and seafreight, even though an actual ship is only used when sending goods via seafreight.

Using Airfreight  to Import Products

Airfreight is a very common method used to import products from international suppliers. With airfreight, and providing your shipping company and suppliers are on the ball, you can have your goods within 7-10 days from placing the order – irrespective of where they’re coming from. However it comes at a cost, due to their being a limited amount of space in the cargo hold of major commercial airlines – which is mostly how your goods will be coming in. Shipping companies book out space on these commercial and cargo airliners ahead of time and then gradually fill them up with their clients’ consignments. Once full, they need to book more space on a new flight and so it goes.

Airfreight has restrictions in terms of what can be shipped via air and the weight and dimensions of the cargo. Hazardous material (hazmat) cargo such as certain batteries (whether loose or built into devices), pressurised canisters, flammables etc all need special handling at an added cost and in some cases the airline and/or shippers won’t deal with them at all. As far as weight and dimensions go, you can go pretty heavy in terms of actual weight. We normally ship in goods that come in anywhere between 200kgs and half a metric ton. Dimensions wise, airfreight shipments we’ve had in the past can take up to 2 stacked pallets – which is about 2.5m in height, and a max length of 3m or so – but mainly we use standard euro pallets. Consigments can be shipped “loose” where the individual boxes are not bound together, however this can mean they’re more susceptible to damage and box corners, and sides getting bent and buckled. Palletised shipments are the way to go and they take the loose boxes, place them on a wooden pallet and plastic wrap them to ensure the boxes stay together.


  • Fast shipping time. 7-10 days from order normally
  • Good for small items
  • Full tracking capability
  • Suitable for most types of goods


  • Relatively expensive in comparison to seafreight (you’re looking at about 35-55% of the goods value)
  • Limited in terms of cargo weights and dimension
  • Limited in terms of what cargo. Hazmat can add to the cost

Using Seafreight to Import Products

Seafreight is the best method to import your goods when you’re look at bulkier orders. Seafreight is just about limitless in terms of what you can bring in. Ever seen those massive steel shipping containers with Maersk or MSC printed on the side, which some people use as a makeshift office or popup shop, well those are standard 40′ (40 foot) containers that can hold some pretty large cargo. So whether you’re shipping tractors or 1000s of little iphone covers, seafreight is the way to go. I use seafreight for our big product items that usually have bigger boxes and gross weights. Sometimes the boxes are just bigger due to packaging, but as the shipping companies charger on the greater of volumetric or actual weight, it’s important to know what your goods weigh and their box dimensions. One such product that springs to mind is a Popcorn Maker which has quite a large protective box but isn’t very heavy. This is an ideal candidate for seafreight. Your shipping company will book out containers: 20′, 40′ or LCL (less than container load) in size. The LCL option is mainly used for the sizes of goods we import.

Seafreight although more economical in terms of cost, does take long. Work on about 6-8 weeks if all goes smoothly. With such a lengthy time frame you can see why the need to plan and forecast your orders is essential. And even more so if you’re paying on a pro-forma basis with your suppliers, ie payment before goods are shipped. Having cash tied up in stock out at sea for longer than is necessary is not ideal.

I need to order both for Mantality’s requirements as well as keep good stock levels for our business customers that order through Men’s Republic. I use a blended 80/20 strategy and utilise both sea and airfreight, but airfreight much more frequently and for quick stock top ups and stock re-orders. Seafreight is used for the big bulky items, and where more units per SKU are ordered. Then aifreight for the smaller time critical items.

Also remember that even though seafreight is 15-30% cheaper than airfreight, the cost of not having those goods to sell can be more than the actual saving on shipping costs. You can’t realise profit on goods you don’t have to sell.


  • 15-30% more economical than airfreight
  • Good for large bulkier orders and items
  • All types of goods can be shipped, whether hazmat or not


  • Lead times are anywhere from 6-8 weeks
  • More warehouse and storage space needed as orders are bigger
  • Cash tied up in stock for 6-8 weeks (where pro-forma terms with supplier)
  • An account is needed with a shipping company as the major courier companies mostly deal in airfreight

So from the above there’s distinct benefits for each method, but ultimately it comes down to your type of business and the best solution to ensure your goods are on your virtual shelves and available to your customers.

Alternative methods to import products

Another method of getting your goods to you is via airmail. If the parcels are under 20kgs this is probably the most economical way of getting goods to your door. The downside though is that in South Africa you will have to rely on our Post Office for this, which can be downright frustrating at the best of times, due to constant striking by employees and their general inefficiency. Fortunately to date, we’ve not had a parcel go missing so even though it could take months in a particularly bad period, you should eventually get your parcel. That said, if you do have the time and parcels are pretty small you can save a small fortune on shipping bills by using the post office.

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Mr Mantality

Mr Mantality

Lover of gadgets, men's culture, cool stuff, Earl Grey tea and all things manly. An optimist in his prime. When he's not keeping the wheels turning at Mantality HQ you'll find him trawling the web, and visiting trade shows to find the newest and coolest gadgets. During his down time he's usually with his 2 dogs, on the golf course, cycling or basking in the literary company of Oscar Wilde, Bret Easton Ellis or Martin Amis whilst drinking espresso strong enough to strip paint.

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