Changing consumers are forcing fleet owners to rethink how they spec beverage trucks.
Shoppers are now buying beer at supermarkets and convenience stores. And they’re looking to restaurants and downtown stores to offer a wider array of drinks, from fresh juice to craft beer.
These changing trends make the world of delivering beverages much more difficult. As distribution systems are stretched, fleets have to adapt to tighter delivery windows, congested city streets, and constricted loading areas.
Spec’ing trucks to meet these challenges is a tall order for fleet managers, who are also charged with delivering the goods cheaper and more efficiently.
“Now it’s even more important to understand the application and the work the truck is being asked to do,” says Brian Edwards, manager of technical sales support for Ryder Canada. “Just a few years ago there was often one solution for an entire fleet. Now operations are looking at a more detailed analysis of the application and tailoring for that application. The more efficient we can make a truck for the job it is being designed to do will lower costs and improve the bottom line, which is everyone’s objective. The old days of one chassis and one body configuration for a whole fleet are pretty well gone.”
Many beverage fleets are now outfitted with a combination of different classes, sizes, and specifications tailored to meet specific needs, often dictated by different provincial retail markets and geography. Molson Coors, for example, delivers beer directly to about 1,500 stores in Quebec where most alcohol is sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. In Ontario, the brewer delivers mostly to The Beer Store (TBS) outlets, which creates a different challenge. Many TBS stores are now located in crowded urban strip malls and plazas that don’t have loading docks.
“Our Quebec distribution team has a totally different application than our Ontario team,” says Andy Walker, Ontario distribution manager for Molson Coors. “In Quebec, many of our trucks have Moffett lifts on the back of trailers for tank lifting. We may evolve into that in Ontario with beer going into grocery stores. As that market expands into more (locations), we may have to evolve into that and get more straight trucks in there.”
Although medium-duty beverage trucks may look much like they did 10 years ago, they’re being spec’d to include the latest technological advances such as fuel-saving powertrains, low rolling resistance tires, advanced safety features, and ergonomic considerations that make the job easier for hard-to-find drivers. Many of the specs that were once exclusive to Class 8 over-the-highway trucks are finding their way into medium-duty straight trucks.
The complexities of their distribution network means fleet buyers have to do their homework. They may have to spec different fleet configurations within the same city. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach no longer applies.
“An analysis of the application and an analysis of the work the truck is doing is vital to making any good decisions on how that vehicle should be configured or constructed,” says Edwards. “In today’s world, it’s not all about costs. You have to look at the total lifecycle value rather than initial purchase price. By investing a few dollars up front, you can gain wonderful savings over the complete lifecycle of the truck.”
Although beverage trucks have unique needs, fleet managers still have to find ways to reduce operating costs. Fuel savings can be achieved through finding the right powertrain combination. Molson Coors replaced most of their 485-horsepower 16-litre engines controlled by 18-speed manual transmissions with DD15 engines boasting 12-speed automatic transmissions, saving the company 8-10% in fuel costs across the fleet. “We kept the manual transmissions for the northern overnight runs but kept the DD15 power plant,” says Walker.
Molson Coors, like many beverage companies, has adapted its fleet to the changing retail landscape. They introduced 43-foot trailers to the fleet to maneuver in some of their more constrained delivery locations. But the shorter trailers don’t work for all applications.
Ryder has also employed 43-foot trailers, but some of their customers returned to the more traditional 53-foot quads because they found the shorter turning radius didn’t make enough difference to justify the increased costs of delivering smaller loads.
Another fuel-saving spec that is slowly filtering down to medium-duty fleets is low rolling resistance tires and tire pressure monitoring systems. “Rolling resistance tires are taking over and becoming the norm rather than the exception,” says Edwards. “They were first front-and-centre with highway folks, but there is a lot of value to be added for local and regional fleet operators as well. The rolling resistance of the tire is a considerable factor in fuel economy as we look at the truck that doesn’t spend a lot of time on the highway. The reliability and traction of the low rolling resistance tire, in some cases, exceeds conventional tread patterns.”
The trend toward enhanced safety features like collision-mitigation-warning systems, better driver ergonomics, as well as improvements to ease loading and unloading at both the warehouse and the customer’s dock, are also key aspects of the spec’ing process for beverage fleets.
“The biggest thing in liftgates now is the advent of the level lift,” says Edwards. “The deck stays completely flat throughout its full lift cycle. Access to grab handles, treading-like things on steps and stairs and on walk ramps and liftgate decks, are also coming into place.
“We’re not asking the driver to be a circus performer and throw himself into the back of a truck anymore. Driver safety is the most critical function a vehicle can perform in terms of driving the vehicle and operating it in a city environment.”
While there are many ways to make a beverage truck more efficient, companies are still putting the health and welfare of their drivers above everything else!
Drivers as brand ambassadors
Driving a truck is a demanding job but it’s even tougher when you’re behind the wheel of a rolling billboard. That’s just one of the challenges that makes the beverage truck driver a unique breed in the transportation industry.
In the beverage industry, where trucks are often wrapped with flashy and sophisticated signage, the driver is an extension of the company’s marketing department. That means they’re constantly working under the watchful eye of the public. In addition to the challenges of maneuvering through crowded city streets and shopping areas, many drivers have to unload directly to stores. Some have to stock store shelves.
Fleet managers, already struggling to find and retain drivers in an ultra-competitive market, are intently focused on the needs of the driver when it comes to training and spec’ing new beverage trucks.
“Driver responsibility is always important to us,” says Andy Walker, distribution manager for Molson Coors. “A driver is a brand ambassador. Their role is always important to our success as a private fleet. We meet with them every year, individually, to go over their driving-utilization numbers and to reinforce the fact that they are driving a moving billboard, not a truck-and-trailer in which nobody knows who you are.”
The training appears to be paying off. Molson Coors, like many other companies, posts a telephone number on the back of its units, inviting people to call in and report unsafe driving practices. Walker says last year they never received a single complaint.
Fleet managers are also spec’ing trucks with the latest safety and ergonomic features in an effort to satisfy the distinct needs of beverage truck drivers. These include: improved liftgates and side-door steps to make loading and unloading easier; enhanced lighting in straight trucks; and collision mitigation systems like lane-departure and side-obstacle-detection warnings. Even automated transmissions can make it easier for companies to find and train new drivers.
“Driver recruitment is a challenge for every company,” says Brian Edwards, manager of technical sales support for Ryder Canada. “You have to hire the right people, train them and keep them over time. The vehicle can become a vital part of that. For example, if drivers can’t get in and out of the truck easily, they’re not very happy every time they have to do it. If we can make it a fairly easy task for them, and they can do it safely every time, then they don’t mind doing it. Driver ergonomics, from our perspective, is the most vital component of how we configure things.”
Walker notes that driver satisfaction and safety are also key considerations when spec’ing powertrains and transmissions. “We never want to sacrifice health and safety for efficiencies,” he says. “We’re trying to get lighter, but it’s tough under our application. When we look at our gross weight going down the road there’s not a lot of room to take metal out of the frame of your Class 8 tractor or out of the I-beam supports on your trailers without possibly jeopardizing health and safety. We want a piece of equipment out there that’s suitable for application and gives you the resulting savings along the way, but at the end of the day, Molson Coors never wants to jeopardize health and safety to save a nickel.”