Hanjin Shipping's market share stands at 2.9 percent of total container capacity, but the shipper's recent filing for court receivership is putting global commerce in a tight spot ahead of the key holiday season.
The unraveling has sent spot freight rates soaring in recent days while its vessels are being blocked from docks at ports in large numbers, stranding their contents for now.
"There is an immediate impact, as shipments already loaded on Hanjin ships are expected to face delays as a result of creditor actions, and recovery could take weeks or even months to be resolved," said H.J. Tan, a consultant at Alphaliner. "Shipments that have not been loaded will also need to be unstuffed, and shippers will need to find alternative carriers that are able to carry them."
The good news is that since Hanjin's global market share is relatively small, it can be filled soon by competitors, he said. Hyundai Merchant Marine plans to step up services by deploying at least 13 of its ships to fill demand on two routes that had been exclusive to Hanjin, Reuters reported.
"It is very difficult to predict such company failures, especially with governments frequently asked to bail out failing firms, and they often do so," Tan added. "One lesson for shippers is to maintain multiple carrier options and to spread shipments across multiple carriers to avoid being stuck in such situations."
Meanwhile, competitor Maersk Line expects its impact to be minimal from the fallout. APM-Maersk controls 15.4 percent of shipping capacity.
"Our business relations with Hanjin Shipping are very limited — most notably, we have a vessel-sharing agreement on the trade between North East Asia and the East Coast of India," the company said in a statement. "We do not expect disruption to the operations of the six vessels deployed here."
In the meantime, Maersk has stopped cargo bookings on Hanjin-owned ships.
Hanjin's problems come at a particularly poor time for the U.S. retail industry. Most U.S.-based chain retailers are in the business of buying products made in Asia and selling them to Americans. That requires trans-Pacific shipping, which is something Hanjin does.
"The timing is unfortunate, as it coincides with the peak shipping season to the U.S. and Europe that typically runs from July to September," Tan said.
For now, retailers are also watching the situation unfold.
"Right now, we are waiting to hear the final determination on bankruptcy proceedings and the implications to their current assets before we will be able to assess any impact," an official from Wal-Mart told CNBC.
Target also said it will be monitoring the situation closely.
—CNBC's Courtney Reagan contributed to this report.