As noted in last month’s article on the shift from straight trucks to tractor-trailer combinations, the bottler/distributor consolidation and SKU proliferation of the last

Kenworth K370

Combining a cargo-style body with one of the newer “cabover”-style truck chassis can improve maneuverability. (Image courtesy of Tom Kelley)

decade have had an unprecedented impact on the beverage industry, and more specifically, on beverage fleet operations. Along with the continuing shift to tractor-trailer combinations, the industry also is shifting away from traditional side-load beverage bodies and trailers in favor of the more generic “cargo”-style bodies and trailers.

As long as distributors carried only a limited range of products, it was practical to load a truck as if it were a small, mobile warehouse and have the driver sell and fill orders at each stop along a static route.

But as SKU counts have ballooned from dozens to hundreds — and, in some cases, thousands — route-selling has become less practical, especially in the high-volume carbonated soft drink (CSD) and beer segments.

Although side-load bodies and trailers can accept palletized pre-sold orders, special care must be taken to ensure each order is picked and packaged to allow safe stacking of multiple orders in each bay and that safe loading of the truck does not conflict with the day’s delivery sequence. On top of these caveats, the side-load equipment still necessitates manual product handling in the field, leading to damage/shrinkage and potential injuries to the driver.

Less of a problem but still a downside to the side-load equipment is the lack of short-term replacement vehicles. If a fleet that has its operations configured for side-load equipment has a truck or trailer out of service for repairs or maintenance, the local rental agency is unlikely to offer a side-load replacement unit, so keeping costly “spare” vehicles in the fleet is the typical alternative.

Cargo-style bodies and trailers aren’t entirely new in the beverage business, but in the past they were far from the mainstay vehicle configuration in most high-volume fleets. A straight truck with a cargo body, often referred to as a “box truck” or “bulk truck,” frequently equipped with a refrigeration unit, has been a popular choice for delivering draught beer but usually accounted for just one or a few vehicles out of an entire fleet.

Outside of the high-volume CSD and beer segments, these box trucks — some refrigerated, some not — are popular for higher-value/lower-volume products.

As “big box” stores have proliferated and typical grocery stores have expanded to near big-box dimensions, many distributors have adopted cargo-style tractor-trailer configurations to serve these specific accounts, most of which have loading dock facilities. Also, when not moved via for-hire carriers, outbound shipments from most bottlers have almost always been transported in cargo-style tractor-trailer vehicles.

Although cargo bodies and trailers are not new, they are quickly becoming the most popular choice as mainstream delivery vehicles in high-volume product segments.

Some of the key benefits of cargo-style bodies and trailers include lower acquisition cost and lower maintenance cost compared with side-loaders, along with a larger resale market for used equipment.

Flexible loading configurations, readily available replacement units, and the ability to dock load the cargo-style bodies and trailers are other important benefits. Dock loading can greatly improve ware-house efficiency and also reduce the footprint of the loading area.

In most operations, the cargo-style equipment will carry an equivalent volume of product in a smaller footprint than a side-loader, greatly improving maneuverability in crowded customer locations. Not only does this make the driver more efficient, it also dramatically reduces the potential for accidents. Combining a cargo-style body with one of the newer “cabover”-style truck chassis can improve maneuverability further.

To allow the same driver to service both dock delivery and ground delivery accounts, the cargo bodies and trailers typically are equipped with a liftgate and either a manual or electric pallet-jack, enabling the driver to get the order from the truck to the customer’s receiving area with no lifting or manual handling of product. This greatly reduces the likelihood of product damage and reaching/lifting injuries to the driver.

When it comes to refrigerated loads, the cargo-style bodies and trailers excel. Partially refrigerated side-load equipment is available, but the compromises required by such a configuration make the refrigeration system less efficient.

 For a large percentage of distributors, delivering cold products is just a niche; so it’s practical to dedicate a refrigerated straight truck or two to cold-delivery routes. When not in use making cold deliveries, these trucks can do double-duty, augmenting the fleet on a busy day or delivering “hot-shot” loads to fulfill a last-minute order.