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COVID-19: The Logic of Logistics for the New Normal

— September 11, 2020

We are seeing signs of recovery, and we can meet new needs and demands. We just have to adjust the logistics behind it.

COVID-19 forced the majority of industries to grind to a halt. However, trucking was considered an essential service since day one. Rather than shutting down, the sector had to adapt operations and redefine processes to meet changing demands.

In the wake of these changes, trucking companies have discovered that it’s no longer business as usual. Pandemic precautions affect how, when, and where goods are  delivered, which means they directly influence truckers and logistics. 

While infection rates may be dropping globally, the way the trucking industry now operates has set the tone for the foreseeable future. Some experts refer to how  things have shifted as the new normal, and for this sector, it aptly sums up the way forward.

Freighted Trucking Volumes Bounce Back

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, closures, delays, and cancellations caused a major upheaval within the industry. As restrictions and lockdowns have lifted partially or completely, conditions have somewhat stabilized. The Global Commercial Transportation Recovery Dashboard reflects this trend. 

This dashboard tracks commercial vehicles’ activity in the USA and other nations around the world, comparing current numbers with figures from February 2020. February was the month that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a global health emergency, and when the first transmission in the USA was reported, followed by the first US-based COVID-19-related death.

This makes it a useful touchstone when looking at how the trucking industry is recovering. 

While the dashboard shows that volumes have bounced back to pre-lockdown conditions overall, the details of the goods being delivered are quite different from what they were previously.

A Change in Supply and Demand

Due to the pandemic, the demand for products has shifted, and supply chains have had to change along with it. At the beginning of the lockdown period, instructions to buy essential items only became commonplace. The delivery of nonessentials was severely curtailed as healthcare experts struggled to get a handle on the new illness that was spreading around the world.

That meant a serious downturn in jewelry, luggage, clothing, and makeup sales. At the same time, there was a surge in panic buying; toilet tissue famously flew off supermarket shelves and couldn’t be restocked fast enough.

But it wasn’t that there was a shortage of this tissue, it was just that supply chains needed to be redirected to meet new demands. 

Piles of toilet tissue sat unused in restaurants and hotels that had closed for business. These large orders were not renewed, but retail stores increased their orders drastically to accommodate the buying surge.

Trucks were rerouted not only to make additional deliveries but in some cases also to make extra stops so that unused products could be collected and redistributed. Yet while this seemed like an infallible solution, it wasn’t always possible due to industry closures. Plus, the logistics that went into planning the new collection and delivery routes were expensive and time-consuming.

Additionally, as the need for hand sanitizer, disinfectants, face masks, and other virus-control products increased, a greater number of trucks had to be dedicated to collecting and distributing those items. Loading plans had to be adjusted to accommodate goods and maximize capacity wherever possible, and loading and offloading procedures adapted accordingly. 

The rate at which US citizens required goods didn’t change as much as the nature of the goods required. In turn, the trucking industry needed to adjust to meet changing consumer needs.

Necessary Adjustments

That’s not to say that the slowing and disruption of production didn’t hit the industry hard – it did.

Before the redesign of truck freighting routes, millions of dollars’ worth of fresh produce went bad and was dumped. Even with food waste bans in place, these losses were expensive. After that, delays at border crossings were costly and overall manufacturing was down, which meant the trucking business was less busy and not as profitable.

But the United States is nothing if not resilient, and truckers and their employers have been learning to cope. 

Routes have been rethought to keep up with supply and demand, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) regulations put into place to protect drivers and slow or prevent coronavirus transmission.

COVID-19 graphic
COVID-19 graphic; image courtesy of Matryx via Pixabay,

A push towards keeping businesses afloat was also observed, and in some cases, larger competitors absorbed smaller companies. Even so, several truckers suffered the misfortune of being laid off as business, in general, took a downward turn. 

As the economy is cranking up again, there’s an expected surge in truckers’ employment opportunities. Non-essential retailers are starting to reopen and require truck freighting services again, and drivers that were laid off are perfectly positioned to apply for those jobs. 

Since the global economy is still recovering, businesses and consumers are likely to continue trying to cut costs wherever they can – which could mean saving on the delivery expenses of long-haul trucks. With the bigger demand for geographically closer products, truckers will likely be making more short trips and fewer longer ones.

The Logic in the Logistics

In light of changing operational requirements, logistics planners have worked hard to find the most cost and time-effective delivery routes. With new routes, they’ve also had to adjust drivers’ schedules to maximize their safe driving hours as short-haul trips require different break patterns and rest stops. They’re also factoring more last-mile drop-offs into their plans, as online shopping becomes a huge part of our new – or next – normal. 

The reasons for the adjustments all make sense, but that doesn’t make planners’ tasks any less challenging. A balance between efficient operations, short turnaround times, and safety must be adequately met, all while turning a profit.

As a nation, the United States has already endured sizable economic losses due to the pandemic, and we can expect that the fallout will continue for some time. But we are seeing signs of recovery, and we can meet new needs and demands. We just have to adjust the logistics behind it.

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