Refrigerated vans have always been an essential, but often overlooked and underrepresented, stage in the transport process of perishable goods since their inception in 1938, but in recent months have become far more familiar to the eyes of the public. Today we’re going to take a look at how Coronavirus has helped to push refrigerated vehicles to the forefront of our minds and the long term implications that this might have.
The effect of lockdown
As everyone in the UK is painfully aware, we have been under some form of lockdown since mid March, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has presented us with a whole host of challenges from how best to celebrate a family birthday over the internet, to coming up with a new set of pub quiz questions every week. A major struggle that has been felt however is shopping for food which has of course remained legal throughout lockdown, but is a daunting prospect for those vulnerable or “shielded” individuals.
This is where refrigerated vans have truly come into their element. In the last two decades online shopping has revolutionised the way we interact with retailers and this has included the weekly food shop. Reports have shown that in the last decade alone (up to 2019) the percentage of people in Great Britain buying their groceries online has risen to almost 30%, with the 2020 figure expected to show an extreme uptick. With this increased demand comes the need for longer delivery routes and therefore the need for mobile refrigeration.
The effect that lockdown has had on this demand is to exacerbate it greatly, with many vulnerable and shielding people now being entirely reliant on their regular food deliveries. This has meant that food retailers both large and small have had to turn to outside contractors and vehicle hire companies to augment their fleets and keep the essential deliveries moving.
For the big name retailers like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons this will have meant contracting huge numbers of vehicles and drivers to ensure that the rising demand is met. For smaller independent businesses the emphasis will have been on hiring a van and being your own delivery driver. Rental companies like Cool Running Rental often offer flexible term leases, and have a wide selection of vehicles to choose from. This flexibility has been vital in helping small businesses stay afloat through difficult times, allowing them to continue to trade with their customers without having to make long term investments to fix short term problems.
All of this combined has led to us seeing more and more temperature controlled vehicles on the road and being used for food delivery. As lockdown begins to unwind however several interesting questions can be asked:
Do we still need food delivery, or could this be the start of food shopping moving all online?
As lockdown restrictions lessen, more and more people will naturally be returning to stores and carrying out their purchases in person again, leading the question of whether the retailers still need bloated fleets of vehicles to be asked. The answer to this can only be found by looking at the number of people who are still remaining in isolation either by necessity or choice, and determining if the need outweighs the costs. As this will be a variable figure even the larger retailers may decide that they need to work on a store by store, locally focussed basis meaning independent rental companies will likely be asked to pick up the slack.
But what if instead of trying to reopen stores, the larger retailers instead decided to streamline? Throughout the UK’s lockdown the importance of the online world has been thrown into the spotlight, with working from home becoming the new norm, and businesses like Amazon becoming ever more essential. As online shopping has proven to be the far more efficient way to sell your goods to wider audiences it could be argued that the supermarkets could become more profitable by moving large portions of their trade online.
Currently, 90% of a supermarket’s trade comes from walk in traffic and tempting customers who only came in for a pint of milk to leave with a bag full of impulse purchases, but as with every other aspect of life this has changed thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people allowed in store at a given time, only one person from each family doing the shopping and the tighter budgets of many households has undoubtedly changed the way that we shop, making the huge stores with packed shelves potentially wasteful.
It might therefore be time for the big retailers to start moving their groceries online, and keeping smaller stores open for immediate essentials or attracting walk in traffic for snacks and other high price items. New businesses like Hello Fresh are already gaining popularity with their entire business model being centred around online grocery shopping and delivery. These newer models allow the consumer to plan out their food for the week, resulting in less waste and a greater level of convenience. While this may lose the supermarkets the “temptation” traffic, there are plenty of examples of online incentivising that could fill this gap, and maintaining smaller convenience stores would keep at least a portion of foot traffic coming in.
Another advantage that food retailers might find is controlling the flow of their stock. Back in March panic buying was rife up and down the UK, with many stores being overwhelmed by the amount of stock that was being stripped from the shelves. In an online model this is much easier to avoid as limits can quickly and easily be put on how many items can be put in shopping baskets and cheaters can be identified by delivery address, all without the argument at the checkout over how many rolls of toilet paper someone needs. This level of control will help to prevent another surge should another lockdown be put into effect, and means that the business is less likely to find itself scrambling to keep shelves stocked.
How the environment might benefit from a greater use of Refrigerated vans.
“How the environment can benefit from more vans on the road” sounds like a sentence that shouldn’t make sense, but in theory it might. There are several factors that could make this statement true.
Moving your grocery shop online and having delivery drivers make rounds could actually mean that there are fewer cars on the road. As an example, imagine 10 families each getting in their cars and driving their 10 different routes to get to the supermarket, and then loading up the cars and driving back again. Now imagine 1 delivery van making a loop around these 10 houses and returning to their point of origin. In this instance the same amount of food has been transported from store to home, but only 1 vehicle has made the journey, with the weight of only 1 or 2 people inside. There is a good chance that the overall journey was longer than any of the individual journeys, but it will undoubtedly be shorter than the 10 combined.
To further compound this, if the delivery van was powered by renewable energy then the environmental impact of the longer journey would be negligible in comparison to the emissions savings. And as vehicle manufacturers gain momentum in their electric vehicle fleets, so this idea becomes even more realistic.
An online model for a grocery store could also eliminate huge amounts of waste both in packaging, and in the amount of food destroyed each and every day. Packaging is designed to be attractive to a customer, to make them stop in the aisle and take the product from the shelf. In a store where there are no shelves, there is no need to have garish and wasteful packaging. Companies could instead make good use of the online platform, having clean and attractive pictures of the products on the website allowing the packaging to be more focussed on efficiency than attraction.
Providing a pick up and drop off service also makes initiatives like Loop more viable, as the amount of effort required by the consumer to be sustainable is reduced. Loop acts by selling your favourite products packaged in thoroughly reusable containers that you pay a small deposit for when you purchase. This deposit is then returned to you in full when you return the container, and it is cleaned and refilled ready for the next sale. There is no washing required, so currently all the consumer has to do is return the container. In an all delivery world this could be even easier to achieve, as when a delivery is made the space in the vehicle can be refilled with empty containers and the driver continues their rounds.
Having your store online would also reduce the amount of wasted energy that goes into lighting, heating, cooling and maintaining oversized stores. As these have to be near to your customers to entice them in, it leads to there being an abundance of large stores well within driving distance of each other. Imagine instead that a large area has only one large distribution centre, that services the customers of the 3 or 4 stores that came before it. In this model the amount of energy used is far less, and as 3 or 4 stores aren’t trying to perfectly predict the amount of stock they need for customers that could go to any of them, then there will undoubtedly be less stock wasted having not been purchased.
What about the here and now?
In truth this is all just a theory, but none of it would be possible without the humble refrigerated van. The ability to move perishable products over these larger distances is what makes the model even potentially viable. With the advances being made in electric vehicles, the shifting public sentiment regarding the environment, eliminating wasteful packaging and even whether or not going shopping is a health risk we’re very interested to see whether like working from home, online food shopping becomes the new norm or not.
If you own a small independent grocery business and you want to set the example for the larger chains to follow, then you should start by hiring your first refrigerated van. Cool Running Rental offer a wide variety of temperature controlled vehicles at reasonable prices and for a term that best suits your needs. If you would like to take your first steps into the new normal then get in touch with us today!