HIGH POINT — High consumer demand for home furnishings is exacerbating pre-existing capacity constraints facing less-than-truckload and final-mile carriers serving the furniture industry. And for the near term at least, those issues won’t be going away.
The good news of booming retail sales for furniture is putting even more strain on the sector’s road transportation infrastructure, which already was dealing with an ongoing — and growing — shortage of drivers.
In October, the Journal of Commerce, reporting on the virtual 2020 Transplace Shipper Symposium, noted that American Trucking Assns. Chief Economist Bob Costello expects driver shortages to keep capacity tight and prices higher.
Driver recruitment and retention has been a problem for several years, and with fewer drivers returning to work in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic-related slowdowns, Costello said by 2023 there could be a shortfall of 105,000 drivers nationwide if current trends continue.
Furniture carrier impact
Richard Tucker is national sales manager at Shelba D. Johnson Trucking, a major LTL resource for the furniture industry. He addressed the situation not only from both his perspective regarding Shelba’s operations, but also from conversations with other carriers as member chairman of the Specialized Furniture Carriers division of the American Home Furnishings Alliance.
Tucker said there’s no doubt driver numbers will be an ongoing problem for furniture carriers, and the spike in home-furnishings consumer demand has made it worse.
“Driver capacity goes up and down depending on demand. When business was at normal levels, we were running about a 20% driver shortage,” Tucker said. “With business the way it is now, that creates more like a 30% shortage” in general.
“If a company’s capacity is to deliver 200 loads, and we’re picking up business for 250, that puts the company continually behind,” he continued, noting that service times are impacted across the board. “Some companies are extending times by two to three days. For others, it might be a week to two weeks.”
With driver and hours-of-service constraints, about the only thing carriers can do right now is work extended warehouse hours including weekends and overtime to at least get loads staged for shipment and get creative in utilizing hours-of-service to their greatest extent.
“We’ll send a truckload driver out on the road to meet an LTL driver halfway with his second and third loads,” Tucker said by way of example. “We have to do that since the LTL driver can’t come all the way back for the loads.”
That’s because electronic logs create zero wiggle room for hours-of-service limitations, and returning a driver all the way to base would add more even time to the delivery date.
A plea for patience
With high and extended backlogs challenging dealers with fulfilling written sales and keeping consumers mollified, carrier delays are the last thing retailers want to hear about, but it’s a problem they have to live with for now.
“The biggest thing retailers can do for us is to have patience with their carrier,” Tucker said. “Most carriers are operating at 110% to 125% capacity now. Our drivers can carry only so many loads a day, and our warehouses can process only so many loads, even working extended hours and Saturdays.”
With growing e-commerce business creating a huge demand for short-haul and final-mile drivers and related equipment, as well as an ongoing priority for PPE transport, carriers are trying to put what Tucker called “10 pounds of sand in a five-pound bag.”
“The market is flooded with sold product,” he said. “Our carrier base is set up to carry X amount of product in their territories and grow maybe 3% a year. The influx of business right now creates the need to grow 20%, and you can’t get the drivers and equipment to service that kind of growth overnight.”
Furniture carriers aren’t alone, either, as truckers serving other sectors face the same issues, whether LTL or final-mile.
“Any kind of product that’s sold, the carriers are set up for a certain amount of capacity,” Tucker said, adding that the driver pool just isn’t large enough even if carriers add more tractors and trailers.
The bad news is that the constraints limiting furniture carriers aren’t going away until business eases.
“We’ll see this problem at least through the end of the year, and it could very well carry over into the first quarter of next year,” Tucker said.
For now, he added, retailers should make an effort to prioritize their deliveries and communicate those needs to carriers in order to receive delivery of their most important product first.
“As long as the boom remains, the problems will remain,” Tucker said. “As carriers, I believe we’ll continue to develop new strategies to deliver more product more quickly.”