Distribution companies urged not to cut corners to cope with Xmas demand

The UK’s delivery and courier fleets have scaled up their vehicle and driver numbers by more than a quarter to cope with demand during the Christmas peak period.

According to Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), the UK’s industry association for e-retail, parcel volumes in 2015 hit 1.065 billion, exceeding industry forecasts to finish 15.7% up on 2014. This was driven largely by the 260 million parcels dispatched during November and December, and this year is expected to see a similar rise.

Black Friday, the retail discount day adopted here from the US, is for many companies the official start of the Christmas delivery rush on November 25. America also coined the term Cyber Monday, which sees further discounts online just three days later. In the UK, analysts expect sales on Black Friday to have topped last year’s £1.9bn. Barclaycard, which processes nearly half of the credit and debit card transactions in the UK, said payment transactions were 6% higher than last year’s Black Friday.

The Nationwide Building Society said purchases by its customers were up 13% on a year ago, while the discount retailing site TopCashback reported a 43% increase in spending compared to last year.

The total is expected to rise to more than £4bn once the weekend and Cyber Monday are included.

Extra 2,000 vehicles

In order to meet this surge in demand, DHL has increased its delivery fleet by 27% through short-term rental, taking its total fleet from 7,500 vehicles to 9,500. It employs 14,000 full time drivers and this is increased by 10% during the peak season. DHL uses its Asset Management Centre of Excellence team to source the vehicles and manage their return post-peak.

Royal Mail’s fleet has been increased by 11% from 46,000 vehicles to 51,000, and driver numbers by 33%, from 6,000 to 8,000, to cope with demand.

It is a similar story at CitySprint, with driver numbers boosted by 5.7% from 3,500 to 3,700 during the peak period, but this is across vans, cars, motorcycles and bicycles. All of its couriers are self-employed although, at the time of writing, this status is being challenged in the courts.

Patrick Gallagher, CitySprint chief executive, said bolstering the fleet was vital to maintain service levels for customers. He told Commercial Fleet: “Last year our busiest day was the final Friday before Christmas, December 18, as customers squeezed in their final pre-Christmas deliveries. This year, we’re expecting to see a Christmas of two ‘humps’, with a second peak in demand for deliveries in January as retailers cash in on the growing trend for convenient returns.”

Mark Horrobin, director of peak at Yodel, said Christmas is just business as usual, but on a larger scale. He said: “Planning and preparation for the Christmas peak period starts in January and we work closely with our clients on their parcel volume forecasts so that we can assess the additional resource needed.”

Yodel appoints around 3,000 temporary delivery roles over the peak season. Horrobin wouldn’t reveal the standard number of drivers for the Yodel fleet, which is made up of a mix of self-employed franchisees and employed drivers.

It has added an additional 800 vans through short-term rental in the run up to Christmas, as well as 570 trailers and 100 tractors. The shortfall is made up of the owner-drivers who supply their own van.

APC Overnight operates 195 trunk routes across the UK which is increased to 250 during the peak season.

Colin Rann, APC Overnight operations director, said: “Demand has been slowly building over the past few years to the peak it is at now. The challenge is resourcing up for that peak period, scaling back between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and then scaling the operation back up again for the January sales.”

DPD began planning for the increase in vehicles and drivers back in January. “As we get nearer, we agree detailed forecasts with our customers so we always know the exact daily volumes,” said a spokesman. “In total, we are planning for just over 20% uplift on last year’s peak.”

However, fleets employing drivers for a short period of time are potentially exposing themselves to risk as every driver needs to be briefed on fleet policy and safety.

Simon Cook, LCV consultant at Arval, said: “It appears the pressure being brought to bear on delivery fleets increases every year, especially around the traditional seasonal peaks such as Christmas and artificial ones like Black Friday. This unavoidably creates pressure on all parts of fleet operations but notably on the drivers themselves who – if they are agency staff – may be driving vehicles that they are not familiar with, and often in adverse weather conditions.

“The message we’d like to get across to delivery fleets working against this backdrop is that it is crucial not to cut corners when it comes to your risk management policy, both from an ethical and legal point of view.

“For these companies, getting the parcels out on time is a priority, but it is crucial that they keep their eye on the ball – ensuring the safety of their drivers, and all other road users, is an area of focus.”

Cook added that this became even more important when it came to agency drivers that delivery fleets often use to cope with seasonal peaks. “These drivers should not be treated differently to those you employ permanently,” he said. “You must ensure that the agency, your own fleet and human resources have followed the procedures in your risk management policy in full and are aware of your road risk policies.”

Sunday working

Government safety inspectors have been called on to investigate the possible danger from delivery drivers who work six days a week and have been asked if they are also willing to work Sundays.

Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions select committee, asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to investigate after Hermes, which delivers parcels for retailers including John Lewis and Next, made the request to about 5,000 couriers.

The HSE said it was considering his request, while Hermes said Sunday work is “completely optional”.

Mel Brockhouse, DHL vice-president operations for retail, said: “The health and safety of our drivers is our number one priority.

“We always comply with driver legislation around working hours and ensure that people take appropriate breaks and are fully trained on vehicles and customers’ bespoke requirements.

“We regularly swap drivers part way through a delivery to comply with legislation – but this happens throughout the year.” DHL employs driver assessors to ensure anyone driving a vehicle does so to its ‘required standard’.

Brockhouse continued: “This ensures that any temporary support meets our high standards as well as those of our customers.  As a result we don’t see any increase in incidents over the Christmas period.”

Temporary additions

All new staff receive training before joining Royal Mail, even if they are temporary additions. Drivers have to complete an assessment with one of Royal Mail’s advanced driver coaches before being allocated a duty.

“The assessment is carried out in one of our vehicles in the unit within which they are going to work so that they can be educated on safety within the yard and advised of any hazards related to the duty they have been allocated,” said a spokesman. “This approach is designed to keep incidents down to a minimum during the busy period.”

Meanwhile, Gallagher told Commercial Fleet that CitySprint has a “strict selection criteria” for its couriers and this is maintained throughout the year, regardless of the pressure to scale up the business to cope with peak demand.

He said: “Every new courier has a disclosure and barring service check, as well as regular driving licence, insurance and vehicle checks so we can ensure every delivery is made in safe hands.”

Every driver has an induction before being allowed on the road. They are given ID badges, CitySprint uniforms and high visibility and safety clothing if required.

Delivery fleets were reminded that there was also no excuses for making compromises when it came when it came to ensuring standards covering delivery vehicles themselves were maintained.

“If a van is due for servicing in December, then it should be serviced in December, no matter what operational demands you face,” said Cook. “There is a temptation to put it back until January, but you will simply be taking unnecessary risks.

“Similarly, while vehicles are being used intensively, it becomes even more important that daily visual safety checks, such as on tyres, are being carried out.

“When your fleet is being placed under more pressure that is the time to step up your risk management.”

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