Since the beginning of the pandemic, private fleets have been riding the wave of steep rises and falls in demand.
Business levels dropped quickly for many carriers, but changed just as rapidly when people began relying on online shopping more as shelter-in-place mandates spread across the country. This boost in freight demands started stretching fleets’ resources thin in many cases, and overall demand in e-commerce hit all aspects of the transportation industry–hard.
Now, the effects COVID-19 has had on the industry have changed supply chain structures and operations for good.
“People stopped going out to the local pizza joint [and instead began] ordering online and getting deliveries,” said Gary Petty, National Private Truck Council president. Private food service and grocery carriers were hit extremely hard in March and April when the public begun panic-shopping and emptied store shelves.
These actions depleted grocery and drug stores’ resources and put added strain on private fleets when they struggled to meet the needs of replenishment for various goods.
Additionally, as internet commerce demands soared, final-mile transportation demand went right along with it as more and more people ordered home goods online more often than in-store. The need for more local delivery drivers skyrocketed as well as restaurants had to transition to having only pickup and take-out options for their customers.
For example, Petty noted that Papa John’s typically uses its in-house delivery fleet to deliver fresh pizza ingredients to its more than 5,300 stores, but as pizza demand rose, Papa John’s had to hire an additional 14,000 delivery drivers–and plans to hire 6,000 more this year.
The company also brought in 50 new Class A-licensed drivers to operate its more than 200 tractors, 300 trailers, and 15 box trucks. Papa John’s now has about 500 total drivers serving its locations.
New standards also arrived at shipping warehouses, where drivers started having to wait in mile-long lines for temperature checks and needing to fill out health surveys in their trucks as they waited to complete pickups. Still, private carriers continued making important deliveries as needed, and “their value was reaffirmed in an unprecedented moment of crisis,” said Petty.
“If you make a great product and you can’t get it to the customer, your brand is diminished,” he explained further. “Private fleets stood strong. The flexibility, reliability, and ability to control operations at the customer level [during the pandemic] has been eye-popping [and] impressive for so many of the fleets.”
A large national processed poultry company, Brakebush Bros., had to make major adjustments to its methods of operation when stay at home orders were implemented, said the company’s director of transportation and logistics, Mike Schwersenska.
“About 50% of our business went away in a two-week period” at the beginning of the pandemic, he said. “Fortunately, being in cheese country, over the years we’ve also become a carrier for many other [food] manufacturers, so we could switch capacity over to assist with their freight needs. We didn’t have to cut back and were able to keep everyone busy.”
Brakebush quickly had to adapt the roller coaster of demand as restaurants using its products switched to takeout and delivery-focused business practices.
“As a company, we had an all-time sales and volume record in June,” explained Schwersenska. “Our transportation group had record miles traveled and record pounds delivered. It was the craziest thing we’d ever seen. Our team did a tremendous job making sure our customers had product when and where they needed it. And, more importantly, they did it safely.” The company did not have any drivers using the temporary hours-of-service exemption put in place during this time.
Brakebush is also one of many businesses that have adopted new health-focused practices to keep workers safe, such as sanitizing trucks regularly–which includes all doors, handles, seats, dials, and brake line gladhands. All of the company’s shared spaces are sanitized daily and all offices are disinfected as much as possible. Additionally, all business transaction receipts are now sent through paperless options.
Luckily, Schwersenska says none of the company’s workforce has tested positive for the virus throughout its entire fleet of 75 trucks and 220 refrigerated trailers. He also said he’s sure the spikes in e-commerce will not end with the pandemic, but have made consumers much more reliant on online orders–so it will likely become a new reality.