Private Fleets Respond to Higher E-Commerce Demand

Published on 2/19/2021 10:26:49 PM

Private fleet operators have been riding a roller coaster since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March.

Many carriers initially saw business levels crater, but business conditions quickly shifted as consumers began purchasing more products online while staying home to contain the spread of the virus.

Amid this spike in e-commerce demand, some fleet operators found themselves dealing with a rebounding surge in freight that stretched networks and assets to the max.

The pandemic and the resulting boom in e-commerce left no corner of today’s complex transportation networks unscathed, from over-the-road full truckload moves to final-mile deliveries and everything in between. And it’s driving fundamental changes that likely will alter how supply chains are structured and private fleet operators deploy and manage assets going forward.

Private carriers in the foodservice and grocery businesses were initially swamped as consumers hit stores and emptied shelves of essential goods, said Gary Petty, president of the National Private Truck Council, the industry advocacy group for the nation’s private fleet operators.

Panic buying in the early days of the pandemic accelerated replenishment — and pressured private fleet resources — as stores struggled to keep certain goods in stock.

Then, as e-commerce acceler­ated, so did the demand for final-mile transportation as consumers increasingly ordered staples for home delivery. Meanwhile, restaurants shifted to takeout orders for on-site pickup and home delivery, further increasing the need for local delivery drivers.

“People stopped going out to the local pizza joint [and instead started] ordering online and getting deliveries,” Petty said.

As an example, he cited Papa John’s, one of the nation’s largest pizza restaurant chains, which operates more than 5,300 stores served by 11 quality control centers in the United States. The company uses its in-house transportation fleet to deliver fresh pizza dough along with the sauce, pepperoni, and other supplies to its locations.

As demand surged with the pandemic, the company quickly made changes to adjust.

According to a case study shared by NPTC, Papa John’s has hired about 14,000 new delivery drivers this year, with plans to bring in a total of 20,000 in 2020.

The company’s private commercial truck fleet grew as well. Papa John’s has added 50 new Class A-licensed drivers, expanding its driver pool to nearly 500. They operate mostly in teams, with more than 200 tractors, 300 trailers, and 15 box trucks.

Petty also noted that early in April, at the outset of shelter-in-place orders, some NPTC members were reporting drivers ­waiting in mile-and-a-half-long lines to get to a warehouse. New protocols where drivers were ­given temperature checks, had to fill out health surveys, and otherwise were kept outside of shipping docks and in their trucks also created delays. Nevertheless, as private fleets stepped up to the plate, protected their employees, and persevered making critical deliveries, “their value was reaffirmed in an unprecedented moment of crisis,” Petty said.

“If you make a great product and you can’t get it to the customer, your brand is diminished,” he ­added. “Private fleets stood strong. The flexibility, reliability, and abil­ity to control operations at the customer level [during the pandemic] has been eye-popping impressive for so many of the fleets.”

Brakebush Bros., one of the nation’s largest providers of processed poultry products, adjusted its private fleet operations ­quickly when the pandemic hit, said Mike Schwersenska, director of transportation and logistics.

Like most private fleets, Brakebush has changed its business processes considerably to keep employees safe from the coronavirus. The company regularly and carefully sanitizes trucks, including high-touch areas such as handles, doors, seats, in­terior switches and dials, and even brake line gladhands. Common areas are wiped down at least once a day, and offices are “fogged” with disinfectant once a week. Receipts for fuel and weigh stations are now paperless.

Among the biggest challenges, Schwersenska said, has been the loss of personal interaction with drivers.

“I was a driver at one time in my life,” he said. “You are there all alone in the truck, by yourself, looking out the windshield. Having that interaction with the office staff, they’re like an extended family. We lost some of that.”

But technology has helped to fill that void. Schwersenska uses FaceTime, Zoom, and other collaborative technology tools to stay connected and communicate regularly with drivers.

“That’s made it easier to stay in touch without the physical proximity,” he said.

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