Grocers, distributors need to leverage fleet truck utilization data during COVID-19 response

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John Flynn is Chief Executive Officer of Fleet Advantage, a leading innovator in truck fleet business analytics, equipment financing and lifecycle cost management. For more information please visit www.FleetAdvantage.com. The views expressed here are those of the author.

Grocery stores and their food distribution partners are navigating significant health and supply chain challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While their distribution partners are feeling the effects of financial losses, grocery stores are facing a different set of challenges. Grocers are seeing an uptick in sales, but they need to coordinate a rush on shipments of food, health, sanitation and other items that millions of Americans need right now.

This has placed great strain on their distribution partners who are having to deal with financial strain and critical logistics adaptations. The Federal Reserve Board and Senate both recently announced critical financial relief packages that will benefit distributors. However, grocery stores are left to keep goods stocked across America and work with distributor partners to maintain driver health and safety measures, adapt to quickly changing market conditions and business models, all while keeping an eye toward long-term operational efficiencies for their private fleets.

Taking a broad look at the current situation

The transport of food and health/sanitary items such as cleaning supplies and paper towels have placed significant strains on the supply chain. Beginning in early March, grocery stores saw an increase of nearly 30% in sales each day because of the increased demand in food and health items. Beyond this additional strain on supply, grocers and their food distribution partners are having to scrutinize significant preventative measures needed to ensure the health and safety of their employees, customers, drivers and everyone else that is in contact with goods that are transported and delivered.

These organizations must rely on their asset management partners to ensure the trucks in their private transportation fleets continue to operate as efficiently as possible in order to safely deliver food and essential goods to their stores during the COVID-19 health pandemic and containment efforts.

The timely transport and safe delivery of these critical items are paramount to helping Americans get through this pandemic, and asset management companies are working around the clock to ensure grocery companies have the support they need to receive essential products to their locations.

Some asset management partners are specifically helping by coordinating the delivery of new truck units with the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to fleets that have an immediate need to accommodate additional shipments of critical supplies. These partners are also helping to coordinate with fleets that have new equipment deliveries that have been disrupted due to plant suspensions or supply chain disruptions for the delivery of these new units.

Fleet Advantage

Grocers and food distributors need to quickly and successfully adapt to their changing requirements, keep drivers and customers safe from the additional spread of COVID-19 and adequately maintain trucks while preserving as much of their bottom line as possible, advises John Flynn of Fleet Advantage.

Keeping drivers safe and trucks clean

There are several considerations for drivers, as well as ways to help keep them safe during the current coronavirus outbreak and containment efforts. There are many issues regarding the health and well-being of drivers, such as where and how drivers will eat and take rests on the road. It is also important to monitor and focus on the daily disinfecting and cleaning of each truck, as well as the interaction with the maintenance departments when repairing units. These necessary steps help ensure the safety of not only drivers but also the technicians needed to properly maintain and keep trucks on the road. 

This daily focus on impeccable cleanliness is also imperative for trailers, where refrigerator units must be appropriately cleaned and maintained for the health and well-being of drivers, customers and everyone along the supply chain.  

Properly maintained trucks keep running

Because many food transportation trucks are running around the clock to deliver essential items promptly, keeping vehicles maintained has never been more important. Fleets should be leveraging critical data to keep track of maintenance trends and milestones to keep trucks safely operating to ensure on-time deliveries and prevent unwanted breakdowns while using data to prioritize necessary repairs and preventative maintenance measures.

Maintenance and repair (M&R) is traditionally a large expense for fleets. Given the current circumstances, additional M&R costs from trucks that are not properly maintained can further erode a fleet’s financial picture in a time when the economic situation has placed enormous strain on grocers and their food distributor partners.

Building more flexibility into daily programs

It’s very important that grocery companies and supermarkets recognize they must be as flexible as possible with their own business models. As an example, with the closing of restaurants, especially, many distributors need to reallocate their trucks and resources to help with the demand on the grocery side. This has created a shift in some fleets and the way they approach their own business and driver programs.

In turn, grocers need to work with their fleets to incorporate any new trucks into their delivery chain efficiently, focusing on logistics and specific procedures for the handling and delivery of food items into the store.

For those grocers suddenly in need of essential items at a quicker pace, they will have to leverage more trucks to help keep up with this increased capacity demand. These are immediate needs, and the structure of their truck deal needs to be flexible to meet this urgent demand, but also allow them to return the asset when the impact of the current circumstances return to normal, which is an unknown at this point.

One option that works well in this type of scenario would be a sale leaseback agreement. The company can select the assets from their fleet that are older models, which are inefficient and more unreliable, and work with a firm that can purchase those assets and lease them back for an interim period and then transition to new equipment when ready. This would enable the fleet to generate cash. The cash gained can then be used for immediate internal needs or simply provide extra working capital.

Where companies are leveraging data for optimization

Because of these adaptations, routes and typical business patterns have shifted for many trucks and drivers. As a result, grocers with private transportation fleets must leverage truck utilization data daily, load percent capacity, driver wellness and other KPIs to monitor the efficiency and optimization of each unit. While it is important to take an “all hands on deck” approach to helping deliver goods and items promptly, fleet managers need to keep an eye on truck utilization to maintain the right lifecycle management of each unit in the long term.

Additionally, it is essential to have advanced data feed capabilities that upload in real-time compared with backward-looking data that only looks at the previous month’s data. This is crucial for managing through items such as mileage, MPG, idle time, routing and driver hours, and it will allow fleets to most efficiently navigate through the extraordinary pace of changes due to COVID-19.  

Learning from COVID-19 and positioning for long-term success

With this knowledge, grocers and food distributors can quickly and successfully adapt to their changing requirements, keep drivers and customers safe from the additional spreading of the COVID-19 and adequately maintain trucks while preserving as much of their bottom line as possible while we all help each other through this time of uncertainty.

But it is important that these organizations remain focused on the larger picture, with long-term business strategies in mind. Proactive companies that may have been considering modernizing their transportation fleet and updating their equipment will realize that this is an opportune time to analyze the age of their assets and plan for the recovery. Organizations should recognize that pent-up demand will eventually be realized further stimulated by additional government stimulus packages. Therefore, these companies will need to be prepared to accommodate the demand with updated equipment that offers advanced safety features at all-time low rates, providing significant savings in operational costs.

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