Truck stop troubles
Industry estimates point to a current shortfall of some 70,000 drivers, which has caused availability issues for many retailers. Product manufacturers who supply the wholesale channel face similar issues with distribution, and wholesalers have been reporting particular difficulties in getting hold of soft drinks, beer, and chilled products such as cream, cheese, yoghurt, and meats. Delivery caps
Nisa has been one of the wholesalers affected.
It told Independent Retail News the issue caused its logistics supplier DHL to miss deliveries to stores at the start of June. The wholesaler said: "The shortage is affecting Nisa in the same way as it is the whole sector. So far, we have been able to continue to deliver orders on day, but it is certainly a very challenging time."
Meanwhile, reports suggested the problem caused Booker to cap alcohol, soft drinks and impulse orders, while Blakemore also limited purchases in the same categories. Costcutter likewise saw deliveries affected by the driver shortage, coupled with increased demand due to good weather. A spokesperson said: "This issue has affected the whole sector.
However, with our delivery partners at Nisa, we are working to minimise the impact on our retailers." Maintaining service
Bestway told Independent Retail News it has experienced limited disruption where suppliers are heavily reliant on agency drivers or third-party logistics providers. Dawood Pervez, managing director at Bestway Wholesale, said: "We have been working closely with key suppliers to manage availability throughout the pandemic, which has enabled us to work ahead and mitigate the vast majority of the issues to date.
We continue to monitor the situation closely with suppliers on a daily basis.
"At Bestway, we are less reliant on agency drivers and third-party logistics, as we manage the vast majority of our deliveries to our customers with our own drivers and logistics fleet. Therefore, we are pleased to have maintained good service to our customers."
But Pervez warns there is another element for the industry to consider, around wage inflation within the supply chain, which usually follows labour shortages. "While we are not seeing an impact yet, we cannot discount the fact that price increases may result within the logistics chain, and then of course, the question will be asked as to whether those increases will be passed on to the consumer." The past few weeks have seen JW Filshill and JJ Foodservice advertising for lorry drivers, while Spar Scotland has recruited new drivers and warehouse operatives and is investing in a driver apprenticeship scheme. James Bielby, chief executive at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, says wholesalers have done all they can to keep their customers stocked, including raising drivers' wages and even sending depot staff out in non-HGV vehicles to fulfil smaller orders.
They have also tried engaging agencies - but they too are short of drivers. The driver shortage is resulting in tonnes of packed fresh produce being dumped. Tim-O'Malley, of Nationwide Produce, said: "Customers will have to be far more flexible on delivery times.
We also need to stop hauling fresh air around the country. Full pallets and full loads are what we need in a crisis like this. Customers need to work with us to stagger orders and reduce the number of deliveries to ensure full pallets and loads.
We also need to see customers being more flexible on date codes to allow direct deliveries from abroad. I'm sure this will eventually lead us all to adopt better practices, but for now we need to work together to find a way through this crisis." Call to action
The shortage is so severe that the trade associations from across retail, wholesale and the logistics industry are calling on the government to act.
Bielby said: "We have suggested the government should consider having army drivers on standby to ensure there are enough drivers to distribute food. We have asked the government to re-instate the temporary extension of drivers' hours (from nine to 11), which was in place last year but ended recently. Other proposals we are putting forward include ending furlough for HGV drivers, temporarily waiving requirements for medical certs and CPC [Certificate of Professional Competence] for those which have run out, and using army drivers to deliver to vulnerable communities."
Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive James Lowman says the body has raised the concerns of retailers directly with government and is working with other industry groups to address driver shortages. "The government should extend legal driver hours now, adding more capacity to respond to this emergency," Lowman added. Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, believes a long-term solution is needed. "We need government to increase the number of HGV driving tests," he said. Meanwhile, the Road Haulage Association has written to the government about the driver shortage, saying it is hitting "crisis level" in the UK.
The trade body says: "The immediate point is that there is a need for tangible short-term urgent actions that will help deal with the shortage of drivers in the coming year. It is critical that solutions fit the industry rather than the bureaucratic requirements and limitations imposed by government departments and related bodies. This has to embrace diverse actions including international recruitment and retention and finding ways to allow qualified drivers to rapidly rejoin the industry.
"Action will be needed to address the issues over the longer term too. We already see that post-Covid some drivers are not wanting to go back to the way they worked. The respect for drivers and the vital skilled contribution they make to society needs to be better recognised."
How did it come to this?
BREXIT - A large proportion of drivers in the UK are foreign nationals from European countries who have returned to the EU. Government failure to add LGV drivers to the skilled labour list means any new drivers from the EU require immigration paperwork. COVID - No testing of new drivers has taken place for more than 12 months, the equivalent of 20,000 new drivers, and no potential new drivers have been trained for more than 12 months due to Covid-19 social distancing rules.
TAX STATUS - Changes to the taxation rules of self-employed drivers have meant a sharp decline in those drivers, as many were foreign nationals who have returned home. This change has seen a 25% increase in agency driver costs. This is a massive on-cost considering that for transport companies, drivers comprise about 40% of their costs.
AGEING DRIVER FORCE - 13% of the industry's UK drivers are over 60, compared with only 1% who are under 25.
RISE IN DRIVER WAGES - As companies fight to retain drivers, wages are rising sharply and are up by 10% already this year.