There is a comfortable conviction in the UK that our retail operations, and particularly grocery supply chains, are among the most efficient in the world. The domestic dominance of Tesco and the rest of the ”big four”, and the success of these companies overseas, and the sheer shelf availability of the world”s produce in high street and mall, convinces us this must be so.
And we are confident that the environmental footprint left by our insatiable demand is continually being optimised and minimised. But is this really so? A UK Department for Transport survey suggests ths perception of efficiency may be somewhat illusory.
The survey, of 9,000 vehicles employed in food and drink distribution on a typical Thursday in 2007, follows broadly comparable work in 1998 and 2002 and seeks to benchmark activity against five key performance indicators – vehicle fill, empty running, time utilisation, deviation from schedule or delays and fuel consumption. Given the changes in the operating environment since previous surveys – in particular the economic pressures of rising fuel prices and restricted driver hours, and the green imperatives that are impacting directly on industries such as food and drink which have a direct relationship to consumers, not to mention technical advances from fuel-efficient engines to in-cab telemetry, one would expect to report a picture of continuing and substantial improvement.
Sadly, the evidence for this is weak. To take vehicle fill, while height utilisation profile has changed considerably since 2002, the overall improvement is only about one per cent. Use of deck area has improved but only from 69 per cent to 75 per cent and as expected, weight utilisation is only up slightly, from 53 per cent to 55 per cent. A significant part of the cube remains unused. Reasons given range from product fragility to customer requirements for single stacking.
Empty running was surveyed at 24 per cent for food vehicles and 20 per cent for drinks – figures that are actually higher than the 2002 (food only) result of 19 per cent. Extremes range from virtually none to almost 50 per cent. The lower figure for drinks probably reflects returns activity for casks and kegs. Time utilisation too shows little improvement since 2002. Trailers and rigids in food are spending a third of their time idle. Even tractor units are idle 25 per cent of the time. The figures for drinks distribution are markedly worse, perhaps reflecting the fact that this is necessarily less of a 24-hour activity – most pubs don”t welcome draymen at 4am.
As would be expected, congestion is the largest single cause of delays and schedule deviations but at 32 per cent, this cause is only marginally up in five years. Most delays are attributable to company actions and delays at loading and unloading points.
As for fuel efficiency, while that of most artics has improved since 1998, for small rigids in the food chain, the figures have actually deteriorated markedly and there has been little improvement across the fleet as a whole. There may of course be reasons for this. It could that the increased of chilled semi-prepared meals in urban catering establishments has increased the use of engine-driven refrigeration, but the results are disappointing.
In fairness, the UK”s food and drink distribution industry is and remains remarkably effective in an increasingly adverse and demanding operating environment, but effectiveness should not be mistaken for efficiency and on the latter score, the industry appears to have plateaued.