Supply Chain Lessons to Remember
Amazon Prime Day has become one of the most popular shopping days of the year, growing since its inception in 2015 to rival Black Friday when it comes to money spent and overall excitement among consumers looking for deals.
The annual Amazon shopping extravaganza provides an opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses to increase sales and promote their goods in front of a larger audience. While Amazon Prime Day helps create excitement and generate revenue, it also challenges the global supply chain, which has been under increasing stress for the past two years.
From a lack of certain raw materials to a shortage of truck drivers, along with lingering issues from the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chains struggle to keep pace. These problems become exacerbated during busier times, causing further delays and item shortages.
While the supply chain struggles can – in many ways – be traced directly to the pandemic and the ensuing fallout, there are lessons that parts of the supply chain, retailers, and even consumers can learn from this time to improve performance in the future and to better plan for surges.
Lessons for Retailers
Prime Day is estimated to have brought in $10.4 billion globally in 2020 alone, according to Digital Commerce 360.
Retailers will want to ensure they have as much inventory as possible, although that can be difficult for smaller companies. These businesses may not have the available cash flow to purchase additional inventory months in advance or have the resources to store excess products.
Part of this issue can be mitigated through predictive analytics. Retailers can try to use past sales records, predicted sales, estimated marketing impact, and other important metrics to better gauge the number of supplies that will be needed. While this is an imperfect science, it can provide retailers with a way to better plan for these surges in activity to ensure customers are happy.
For retailers that find themselves falling short on deliveries, it is critical to remain in communication with customers. Let those that made a purchase know of possible delays before a sale is made and make every effort to keep them informed as to potential delays in their delivery. Customers will be more understanding if they know beforehand that delays are likely and will feel more at ease if they feel informed throughout the process.
Additional Supply Chain Issues
To stay in step, shippers, carriers and other members of the supply chain should closely align themselves with the operations of business and vendors. They can do so using business intelligence software as part of an enterprise resource planning solution to better forecast potential hiccups. These systems can help track available resources, following the movement of products and purchasing trends, along with allowing for time to switch gears if needed. While there is no perfect solution, advanced technologies can help supply chain members stay on top of the latest needs to anticipate problems in the future.
Supply chain firms should also understand the changing global economic environment. Even as shoppers begin to return to stores, e-commerce delivery will remain a priority. Businesses should better anticipate large online shopping holidays such as Target Deal Days. These events help drive increases in business volume and have grown in importance as more consumers become comfortable shopping online.
Consumers still expect their e-commerce shipments to arrive in a timely manner. While delays could be expected during the pandemic, consumers have also grown accustomed to same-day service from some retailers. The speed at which merchants can get goods to consumers will be one of the most critical factors of their success.
The Ongoing Driver Shortage
For trucking companies, the ongoing challenge remains staffing. The trucking industry has struggled to employ enough drivers to meet demand, causing additional stress on the supply chain and delivery. Trucking organizations continue to make recruiting pitches to drivers – in particular highlighting the safety and security of truck driving – but still, find themselves in need of qualified applicants.
Both retailers and delivery providers need to plan for these spikes in demand. The logistics ecosystem features many pieces that right now face several obstacles. Businesses cannot just assume the system will work without a hitch. There must be planning and organization to ensure that retailers have the raw goods needed to make their goods and that those goods can be delivered to customers once complete. Customers will have some patience, but businesses – and the logistics companies that support them – should not get too comfortable.
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Why Transportation Funding Requests are the Highest
Congressional lawmakers submitted nearly $2.8 trillion in total requests for infrastructure projects to the House Committee on Appropriations at the end of April. These requests stem from the limited return of earmarks, which the parties agreed to earlier this year.
These requests should come as no surprise. Political leaders have long championed infrastructure projects as a way to provide for their constituents. Infrastructure projects are geared to benefit a majority of the community and provide a tangible accomplishment for politicians’ time in office.
Overall, transportation earmarks dominated spending requests in this latest cycle. Spending for labor and health projects was second at $832 billion, followed by interior at $697 billion. It is likely this is just a starting point as more transportation projects will continue to be proposed.
Let’s look at some of the biggest transportation infrastructure projects lawmakers would like to undertake in the coming year.
This massive project will one day span more than 2,400 miles from Texas to Canada. It currently features multiple disjointed sections, bringing in concerns regarding its safety and efficiency. One of the significant needs for the project is a bridge over the Ohio River that would carry a planned I-69 extension between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky.
Both Kentucky and Indiana have pledged to spend $850 million on the bridge but requested federal funding to speed up the process.
Hudson River Tunnel
Politicians in New York and New Jersey have long fought to get funding to repair the existing tunnel, which was damaged by saltwater intrusion during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Local leaders argue the cost is more than the two states can afford and need help from the federal government, which has, at times, supported and rejected the project. An environmental impact statement is expected to be finished soon and could give new life from the project, something Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has signaled as a priority.
The collapse of the I-35W bridge in 2007 remains one of the most harrowing disasters in recent memory. That bridge collapsed during rush hour traffic, killing 13 people and severely injuring countless more.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a poor grade and identified 46,000 bridges in deteriorating conditions. Approximately 600 of those bridges are in Minnesota; these need restoration and repairs to withstand the harsh weather and ensure another accident never happens again.
Along with repairs and maintenance, there are funding requests for more ambitious projects. One is a hyperloop in the Midwest that would use a system of sealed tubes with low air pressure to transport passengers rapidly in pods mostly free of friction. Inventor Elon Musk has championed this technology that one day could dramatically improve public transportation and reduce the burden on roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure.
Washington Bridges and Transit
A recent Seattle Department of Transportation report found that 65% of the city’s bridges were in fair condition and 6% were poor. Lawmakers would like funding to improve the bridges, invest in public transit and a light rail, fund infrastructure projects in small and medium-sized cities throughout the state, and improve earthquake resilience.
One important project is the West Seattle Bridge, which is the most used in the city. It was closed in March 2020 after cracks were discovered, causing a ripple effect throughout the local transit ecosystem. The results are expected to worsen as more people resume commuting to work as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Finding a Path Forward
These are only a handful of essential infrastructure projects that Congress would like to complete. Major traffic centers, such as Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Austin, have different projects in the works as well, along with major interstates such as I-95 on the East Coast and I-10 in the South.
These latest budget requests, combined with the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure spending legislation, could dramatically change the nation’s transportation system over the next several decades.
Infrastructure spending has long been seen as a positive use of public funds. These projects help create jobs, spur future economic growth, and create long-term investment opportunities. The nation’s infrastructure has been built over the last century and needs to be refreshed for today’s current world.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed that changes would come to how people work and gather. Improved electric vehicle technology, ride-sharing, and new public transit methods will also alter future needs.
The market for used trucks has hit one of its highest points in history—with no sign of slowing down.
ACT Research reported that in March the average used Class 8 truck brought the third-highest price on record, jumping to $52,388 per sale from $43,791 just a year before. The all-time high of $55,000 was recorded in 2015 and may be in jeopardy over the coming months and years. Technavio, a global technology research company, estimates that the used truck resale market will expand at a compound annual growth rate of more than 4% between now and 2025.
But what’s driving this growth, and why do experts believe it will continue for the immediate future? Let’s look deeper at this explosive growth in used truck prices.
A Shortage of New Trucks
The COVID-19 pandemic created shortages and delays throughout the supply chain, including the raw materials and parts needed to build new Class 8 trucks. Meanwhile, demand for new trucks continues to rise. FTR Transportation Intelligence reported that more than 42,800 new trucks were ordered in January, up 144% from the year before.
With more trucking companies looking to purchase vehicles and manufacturers unable to keep pace, the secondary market for used trucks has increased. There is hope, however, that as the pandemic fades away, the supplies needed to build new trucks will return to normal levels—but it may take some time for the price of used trucks to recover.
Strangely, it’s one of the smallest components that’s holding up production. A shortage in the semiconductor supply chain has reduced the availability of computer chips, which are used in both tractors and passenger vehicles. The average tractor can use anywhere between 15 to 35 chips, but pandemic-related slowdowns, two factory fires, and congested West Coast ports have greatly decreased availability.
While things like wiring harnesses, foundry parts, axles, or tires can be added after a truck is assembled, a lack of microchips can slow the entire assembly. These challenges combined with increases in new orders have created an unbalanced market.
As of March 1, the reported backlog of trucks ordered and waiting to be built stands at 228,000. At the current build rate, it would take almost a year to simply clear the backlog if no other orders were placed. Part of that problem is also staffing. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability for manufacturing workers to be on-site, resulting in a labor shortage.
The Benefits of Used Trucks
Auction and retail prices for late-model, low-mileage used trucks, in particular sleep truckers, are up. These models are at their highest point since J.D. Power began tracking the segment in 2015. Used trucks tend to hold their value more than other vehicles as drivers must adhere to strict standards to stay on the road. A lot of truckers also invest in their vehicles, adding amenities once they own the truck—both to make it more comfortable while on the road and to increase potential resale value.
According to J.D. Power, the average sleeper tractor retailed in March was 68 months old and had approximately 458,000 miles on it. Its selling price of $57,489 cost almost 30% more than just one year ago. Due to new truck shortages, companies that traditionally cycled trucks out on a three-year or five-year cycle may hold on to them longer, further reducing the availability of used trucks.
High Demand + Low Supply = Pricey
The need to carry freight has remained strong, and trucking companies with staffed drivers on the road can start charging higher fees. Those extra funds could, in turn, be used to purchase more expensive vehicles if and when they become available.
Contract freight rates are near record levels, as are spot rates, after season adjustment. This has been exacerbated by people leveraging online ordering and delivery, along with the distribution of stimulus checks that provided many families with additional income.
That said, the trucking industry as a whole finds itself in an odd predicament. There is a strong need for drivers and trucks but not enough of both. Companies and owner/operators will have to decide if they want to invest in a newer used vehicle, make improvements to their existing ride, or get in line for a new truck now. With the end of the pandemic hopefully in sight, there is hope that the production of new trucks can increase in the coming months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased attention on the already growing need for more truck parking as trucking advocates push for federal funding to alleviate the problem. The need for safe truck parking existed before the pandemic, fueled largely by the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate that more strictly regulates the length of time drivers can work. With traditional truck and rest stops filling up quickly, truckers find themselves now parking in abandoned parking lots, on shoulder highways, and other dangerous locations.
A Rapidly Growing Problem
A 2019 survey showed there were about 313,000 truck parking spaces across the country. This included about 40,000 at public rest areas and another 273,000 at private truck stops, numbers that increased from just five years earlier (the number of public rest area spots grew 6%, while private spots were up 11%). However, the same survey found that 98% of truckers interviewed still had trouble finding safe parking at the end of their day.
This was, of course, before the pandemic started. Some private truck stops further curtailed parking to reduce the number of people on their property to limit virus exposure, and public rest stops became crowded as more people traveled in recreational vehicles to avoid air travel and public transportation. Before the ELD mandate, truckers could simply continue to travel until they found a safe location, usually away from a major metropolitan area.
Now truckers must either commit valuable driving time to planning where they will spend their night or drive around in hopes of finding a safe space to sleep. Some truck drivers have resorted to staying in unsafe locations to avoid fines and penalties for logging too much time behind the wheel. While some mobile applications have been created to help solve the problem, the reality is there are simply not enough available spaces for truckers currently on the road.
Is There Help in Sight?
Maybe. There was initial hope that funding could be included in the upcoming $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill but that did not happen. Instead, the best hope for trucks is an infrastructure bill Congress will debate later this year.
Peter DeFazio, a Democrat representative from Oregon who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Panel, has vowed to push for truck parking when the discussion begins on a highway bill to replace a transportation bill passed in 2015 that expires this October. DeFazio included $250 million in an infrastructure bill last year to improve truck parking, but that measure never received a vote in the Senate. Other politicians, including Mike Bost, a Republican representative from Illinois, have proposed similar measures to increase parking options for truckers.
Bost, who comes from a family of truckers, introduced a measure for the COVID-19 relief bill that would dedicate $125 million to truck parking this year, a number that would increase each year through the 2025 federal fiscal year. In the end, $755 million would have been provided to help truckers. While this measure was tabled, it provides a potential outline for what relief could look like.
The Federal Highway Administration has taken note of the problem; through the National Coalition on Truck Parking, the agency will seek to obtain initiatives that will improve parking for commercial truck drivers.
Trucking advocacy groups argue that airlines, Amtrak, and other transportation industries have received billions of dollars in aid during the pandemic, truckers have largely been ignored. The goal is for funding to create additional parking areas and forbid rest areas from charging truckers to park.
The Risks of Not Expanding Truck Parking
The trucking industry seemingly has more trucks than drivers these days. While trucking has shown to be a valuable profession, especially during the pandemic, the stressful nature of the work has led to decreased driver retention.
Truck drivers already work long hours, spend days and weeks away from loved ones, and must follow strict workplace safety guidelines to keep themselves and the roads safe. While a driver may be unlikely to leave the profession over the lack of parking alone, the daily stress of finding a spot may contribute to an overall negative feeling for the job.
The pandemic has highlighted the value of truck drivers who have worked in difficult conditions to continue delivering goods. For many, they could not even use a bathroom at their distribution center for fear of spreading the virus.
Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, summed up the increasingly complicated issue from a trucker’s standpoint.
“All truckers want is a place to take a nap,” he said, according to Roll Call.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight the sheer importance of long-haul drivers in the United States as record unemployment in the trucking industry leads to disruptions in supply chains nationwide. Namely, these unemployment rates resulted in a critical driver shortage in the industry, forcing carriers to increase their spot rates. According to Business Insider, when carrier rates increase, retailers tend to pass the transportation costs down to consumers. During the last driver shortage, Amazon raised their Prime membership price by $20. Clearly, a driver shortage affects more than just the trucking industry.
As we move forward in 2021, the trucking industry needs to address the long-lasting challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic in order to improve driver employment levels and avoid further turmoil.
Where did all of the Truck Drivers go?
One of the main factors leading to the shortage of long-haul truck drivers is the global economic recession. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trucking industry saw record unemployment rates, with over 88,000 jobs lost in April alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While unemployment rates have improved since April, the U.S. unemployment rate currently hovers around 6.7%—the highest it’s been in years.
Some carrier companies have since closed down their operations permanently due to decreased demand and increased driver costs. Government-mandated social distancing measures imposed on those remaining carrier companies negatively impacted productivity and further limited the need for truck drivers.
Increase in Unemployment Benefits
Due to the drastic increase in unemployment, the United States government passed legislation that increased unemployment benefits and provided stimulus payments for Americans. Many older drivers decided to protect their health by accepting the unemployment benefits, rather than travel the country and put themselves at risk of infection.
For a while, the increased benefits actually provided unemployed drivers with nearly comparable salaries to what they would be making while fully employed, disincentivizing them from returning to the workforce right away. Hundreds of owner/operators even received federal PPP loans to keep them afloat without having to work during the pandemic. As for what’s next, President-elect Joe Biden has his own plans for economic relief packages, including a boost in unemployment benefits that will certainly impact the trucking industry.
Not only is the pandemic responsible for widespread unemployment throughout the trucking industry, it also pushes many older drivers to cash in on their retirement early. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, long-haul drivers are an especially high-risk population, stating, “The unique co‐occurrence of pronounced health disparities and known COVID‐19 infection, morbidity, and mortality risks suggest the possibility of a novel COVID‐19 based truck driver syndemic due to advanced driver age and endemic health issues.” Many older truckers decided to protect their health and retire early amid pandemic fears, and it will take a new incoming group of truck drivers to fill the vacancies.
CDL School & DMV Closures
COVID-19 forced many small businesses to shut down, both permanently and temporarily. CDL schools across the country have had to close their doors, significantly impacting the ability of prospective new drivers to obtain their CDL. Further complicating matters is the fact that at the height of the pandemic, over half (27) of states closed their State Driver Licensing Agencies (SDLA) while the remaining 23 states operated at limited capacity, severely slowing down processes.
The pandemic has had such a great impact that the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA) proposed governors “enact executive orders to recognize CDL training schools and SDLAs as ‘essential services’ while also granting the Secretary of Transportation temporary authority to also administer CLP or CDL testing due to SDLA closure.” CDL school and SDLA closures also put a pause on the training and licensing of an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 new drivers. Many states and localities continue to impose their own restrictions and lockdowns, making it difficult for new drivers to obtain their CDLs and join the depleted workforce.
The Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse
In January 2020, the government made it mandatory for all long-haul drivers to report to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse for centralized management of driver substance abuse records. Any drivers violating the DAC’s substance abuse policies are immediately removed from the road, and their infractions are documented for five years for current and future employers to access. Drivers can return to the road upon completion of proper DAC return-to-duty protocol, including meeting with a substance abuse professional.
In 2020, the DAC removed more than 50,000 drivers for substance abuse infractions; less than 10% of “early violators” have returned to the workforce. This means the trucking industry can expect to lose around 50,000 jobs annually due to substance abuse, which would be a huge burden on supply chains across the country.
The trucking industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, experiencing record unemployment rates and a driver shortage across the industry. Along with other repercussions, carrier companies now face difficulties finding and retaining high-quality drivers, leading to disruptions in supply chains. In order to minimize costs and keep the industry afloat, there will have to be new, innovative ways to attract quality drivers and meet the growing transportation demand.
As the coronavirus took its toll on the world in 2020, some industries—like the hospitality sector—were deeply impacted as government-mandated restrictions and virus-related fear prevented restaurants and bars from operating at maximum capacity. E-commerce, on the other hand, saw an enormous surge in demand with companies like Walmart and Amazon seeing record levels of revenue during the pandemic. The trucking industry, too, was not insulated from the impact of the pandemic. Large numbers of jobs lost and new challenges on the roads forced the industry to quickly adopt innovative new technologies in order to overcome the impact of the pandemic. Here are four technology trends emerging in the trucking industry that owner/operators should keep an eye on in the coming months.
1. Autonomous Vehicles
Almost straight out of a science-fiction movie, autonomous—or self-driving—vehicles are becoming a reality as manufacturers like Tesla begin producing more autonomous consumer vehicles. The trucking industry has become an early adopter of autonomous technology for their freight shipments due to an increased demand for shipping and a shortage of long-haul drivers—caused by economic instability and the tough nature of the trucking industry. Autonomous trucks manufactured by Waymo are already in use on the roads today in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and Waymo has plans of expanding into more states in the future. Proponents of autonomous vehicles argue that self-driving semi-trucks will eliminate human error behind the wheel, lower costs of shipping, and increase efficiency across the board for trucking companies. There is some trepidation about turning toward autonomous vehicles; some worry about accidents caused by self-driving trucks while others worry about the loss of critical jobs due to the addition of autonomous vehicles. If companies begin turning toward utilizing their own autonomous vehicles, it could have a negative impact on the number of available trucking jobs.
2. Smart Technology
Another important trend to watch out for in 2021 is the use of new and improved technologies to optimize the efficiency of long-haul shipping. Smart technologies on trucks improve safety for lane departure detection, lane keep assist, assisted braking, tire pressure monitoring, and even load stability. Furthermore, logistics companies are utilizing new technology for enhanced tracking and reporting to minimize human error and to have a better grasp of where their freight is at all times. The improved tracking is beneficial for planning when truckloads can be dropped off and picked up, as well as for providing customers with accurate updates. Alongside this technology, owner/operators can use new technology to locate cargo while on the road to reduce the amount of time spent on the road with an empty truck. With freight matching technology, drivers can ensure their trucks are always full and they are maximizing revenue capabilities at all times.
3. Data Analytics
Data analytics has made its way into pretty much every industry, from marketing to manufacturing to the trucking industry. Owner/operators use analytics to capture important data pertaining to their cargo, their trucks, and their routes; using this data, they can make valuable improvements to their performance, thus saving time and money and even helping them to drive more safely. According to Transmetrics, one study conducted by Supply Chain Management World found that “64 percent of executives think that big data and the insights it brings will have a disrupting power that can pivot the industry forever.” Data analytics also provide valuable insights into freight markets that help owner/operators uncover trends and patterns in the industry to pinpoint new opportunities and improve existing ones.
4. Electric Trucks
Electric trucks are making their way into the freight industry. Tesla already designed an electric semi-truck that can travel almost 500 miles on a single charge, and in 2019, Neuron EV released the TORQ, a fully electric semi-truck. With rising fuel costs, electric trucks can save owner/operators money in the long-term, improving their overall bottom line. Additionally, electric semi-trucks are much better for the environment, and companies have begun employing electric trucks to lower their carbon footprints. While electric trucks will not be replacing your entire fleet right away, they might eventually as states like California begin passing legislation to crack down on carbon emissions produced by the trucking industry.
As truckers begin preparing for 2021, it’s important to embrace the new technologies that are changing the long-haul industry for the better. While the trucking industry isn’t going anywhere, we’re seeing the emergence of new technologies that can benefit both drivers and carriers. Autonomous vehicles, smart technology, data analytics, and electric vehicles are reshaping the modern trucking industry, making the job easier, more accurate, and safer along the way.