Fortec lorry at night

Fortec said its members are seeing "huge spikes" in B2C trade as they "adapt and thrive" in the new Covid landscape.

According to the Association of Pallet Networks (APN) there was a 37.7% increase in B2C volumes in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

In April and May this year, pallet deliveries to residential addresses were more than double those in 2019.

Fortec said online ordering to private addresses has "skyrocketed" and, for many of the 80-plus members of its distribution network, this has resulted in new processes and a change of approach.

The company, which has 24 years of experience in palletised freight distributon, said it is seeing no sign of a return to to pre-Covid buying behaviours.

Commented Fortec MD Adrian Bradley: “For many of our member companies the landscape changed almost overnight and B2C trade shot up – this trend has continued.

“Many business customers closed their doors to work from home, new businesses were set up in houses, people were furloughed – it all had an obvious knock-on effect on online shopping, and the decline of high street shops has had an impact too.

“The practicalities of responding to a B2C market has brought many challenges for lots of our members, and we have been supporting them over the last six to eight months to help them to manage. There have been some real success stories from logistics firms that are thriving with the change.”

Bradley pointed to Brackley-based NGC Logistics which he said ploughed ahead with a major restructure and joined Fortec during the pandemic.

Pallet distribution remains the international courier’s primary service offer, operating from a 30,000sq ft warehouse with a fleet of over 1,300 owned and private vehicles.

With a £40m turnover, NGC Logistics’ substantial client base is made up of large e-commerce businesses.

NGC general manager, James Hadley said: “The profile and demographics of e-commerce has shifted, and over 50% of our deliveries now are to private homes – pre-Covid it was around 25%. In March during the first lockdown we saw volume drop right off. Then, after two weeks, things picked up again as more people started ordering online – turf, rowing machines, DIY and garden equipment, and bulky items that needed pallet distribution.

“We were already operating more efficiently as a result of our restructure, but if we are to meet our business objectives to open more service centres UK-wide, we need to drive more volume, achieve a better balance from our freights, and have the ability to deliver bigger pallets. The changes we have made to the business are already proving beneficial and we are definitely more flexible as a company to respond to Covid and the B2C market.”

Before COVID Fortec member Masterfreight in West Bromwich served predominantly business customers in a wide variety of businesses in many different sectors.

However, transport manager Richard Johnson claims they have adapted more quickly than many to the new split of 40% B2C and 60% B2B.

“We cover Birmingham, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton postcodes, so we would often deliver to residential and urban areas before the pandemic," he said. "All our vehicles have tail lifts to safely load and unload trucks to all sorts of properties, and pump trucks are included as standard too, which again gives us a bit more leeway as to how far we can deliver pallets at home addresses.

“We have responded to the different expectations of consumers too. We are the last cog in the wheel, but we don’t always have communication with the consumer until the drop which can make things tricky. We have good customer service training in place and our drivers are used to managing the situation when delivering to stoned driveways, side access and narrow doorways.”

Another Fortec member - Nexis Services Ltd Peterborough - targeted premium SME business customers pre-Covid, and processes and procedures were very much geared towards servicing this market.

However, the company has since created a new business model to respond to the new 60% B2C and 40% B2B split.

Director Debbie Swinscoe said: “Our drivers have been used to building a rapport with their regular business customers and have a system, usually with the same members of staff, who are ready to accept the pallet.

“Consumer customers are usually one-off deliveries, so drivers do not know what to expect and the equipment available for unloading is limited. This all has massive implications on health and safety and predicted delivery times, as well as cost implications too if products get damaged.

"We have put new health and safety guidance in place, developed new customer service procedures so that we call all consumers to offer a two-hour deliver window, and we’ve even addressed our recruitment procedures so we can employ an adequate number of trained drivers ready for more home deliveries over the Christmas peak.”