A Conversation with Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief of Heavy Duty Trucking & Truckinginfo.com.
Navigating the operational and financial aspects of your dealership can be challenging at any time. Throw in a pandemic and the challenge increases many-fold, if not exponentially. Heavy Duty Trucking & Truckinginfo.com Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge is a long-time industry observer, writer, and editor. She shared her insights on the state of heavy duty, the safety and efficiency adjustments fleet operators have had to make in the Covid-era, and what changes might stick around once the pandemic has finally passed.
Can you give us a level set on the heavy-duty trucking industry generally? Where does the industry stand today?
“The answer to that question depends greatly on the type of trucking you’re in. Fleets that primarily serve areas hard hit by the pandemic – such as events, restaurant supply, and oil production – are still hurting. At the other end of the scale, companies that mostly haul the supplies that have been necessities during the pandemic – medical supplies and groceries – saw a surge in demand at the start of the pandemic and are still generally doing pretty well. And then there’s everything in between.
“On a broader scale, the industry was already facing something of a freight recession even before the pandemic hit, coming off record highs and suffering from lingering overcapacity. It was looking forward to a stronger 2020 before COVID-19 started spreading. After being hit hard during the spring quarantine shutdowns, most freight has bounced back. But the pandemic has scrambled freight networks as some parts of the country have been affected more at different times than others.
“After a steep drop in Class 8 truck sales the first six months of the year, July orders for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles jumped to a six-month high. However, FTR cautions that uncertainty around the COVID-19 outbreak and Congressional inaction on unemployment benefits could stifle the market this fall.”
The COVID pandemic has been part of our lives for quite some time now. What has the industry learned so far? What adjustments have heavy-duty dealerships had to make?
“There was a great deal of uncertainty and confusion early on as to the best ways to protect drivers and other employees. Fleets took significant steps to do so, going to great lengths to obtain supplies such as hand sanitizer and face masks and implementing social distancing and sanitization policies and procedures in all areas. They had to put in place policies to figure out how to deal with drivers who came down with symptoms on the road – although it appears that trucking companies overall have had fewer employees contract COVID-19 than the general population.
“Many fleets said they have learned how to be more flexible and resilient. Some pivoted to other types of freight that were more in demand. They’ve learned how to do things remotely, from sales calls to portions of driver onboarding.
“Our audience is primarily fleets, so I haven’t talked to as many dealers, but we do know that they have taken many steps to help their customers. Examples include investing in special fogging devices to disinfect trucks in the shop, working with customers on special financing, expanding parts deliveries, offering pickup and delivery of trucks, and increasing remote maintenance services.”
Amidst the upheaval, have you seen bright spots within the industry or the broader economy?
“Obviously, e-commerce has gotten a huge boost, and most experts are predicting that even once it’s safe to go back to traditional retail spending habits, many consumers will still buy more things online than they did before COVID-19.
“The pandemic has made it clear that omnichannel is here to stay, and that will affect how carriers and logistics providers work with their customers. For some fleets, it means investing in medium-duty vehicles for last-mile delivery. For others it may mean more regional and urban hauling between distribution centers.”
What changes have you seen as a result of the COVID crisis that you think will be with us for the long haul?
“The crisis pushed many fleets into making technology investments that allow for greater efficiency and less contact, such as electronic bills of lading and other paperless documents. Like many industries, we’ll see more flexible work-from-home policies continue in the future.
“While virtual meetings and events can’t totally replace the value of in-person interaction, many believe that even once travel becomes safe again, people and companies will be more deliberate about what really requires travel and what can be handled via Zoom. I believe that new ways to serve customers, better resiliency and agility, work flexibility, and leaner operations will be among the long-term changes.”