As the beverage industry continues to experience significant levels of consolidation, distributors on the local, national and global level are being affected.

Meanwhile, product SKU levels continue to grow as more beverage categories mature, new ones emerge and packaging options proliferate.

This adds up to a major paradigm shift in delivery operations with route selling giving way to pre-selling and orders increasingly being pre-staged and palletized. The evolving product mix often requires solutions capable of delivering temperature-controlled, refrigerated or multi-temperature loads.

Fleet managers also must account for increased operating costs, which force the re-evaluation of load configurations to achieve maximum productivity. In markets where second shift deliveries can be arranged, switching from straight trucks to tractor-trailers can help a fleet to move more product with fewer power units.

This market evolution has many distributors looking at new body and trailer configurations that can reduce the number of vehicles required to deliver a given amount of product while enabling drivers to efficiently service more customers during each shift.

Unfortunately, there’s no configuration of truck that can serve all of any one distributor’s needs; however, there are a few increasingly popular “multi-role player” configurations that can cover a wide variety of needs. Today, the job of an effective fleet manager is much more akin to that of a skilled ring master coordinating multiple acts than that of a drill sergeant barking out orders to dozens of identical soldiers.

Just as the armed services are broken down into specialized forces, it’s easier to select the optimum delivery vehicle configuration if you consider its typical field of battle.

Perhaps the toughest battle in today’s beverage delivery operations environment is the small to mid-size on-premise accounts located in urban areas. The combination of poor delivery access, cyclical order volumes, route-selling even in a predominantly pre-sell environment and a wide variety of required SKUs can require a “special operations” branch of the beverage delivery force.

These accounts are one place where a side-load body or trailer is virtually a necessity. To keep pace in the evolving beverage delivery market, all of the major suppliers of side-load equipment now offer hybrid configurations that offer both refrigerated space for kegs and/or local micro-brews, along with ambient temperature space for less sensitive products.

Another stronghold of traditional side-load delivery equipment is on larger routes servicing soft drink vending machines. Even with advanced vending inventory reporting technology, this market segment still is almost exclusively a route-selling scenario, with a limited number of SKUs involved. Home-and-office delivery water routes present a similar scenario.

Although the side-load configurations for these applications follow an outwardly traditional format, the side-load equipment manufacturers have been anything but complacent when it comes to features and options. Ergonomic considerations, in the form of pull-out steps and optimized grab-handle placement, are a much larger focus on the latest side-load designs. Locking and latching hardware also has significantly improved in order to stand up to weather and corrosion.

Once SKU counts graduate beyond a few dozen, side-loaders give way to end-load cargo-style boxes and trailers. To service an extensive range of SKUs at urban retail locations, an increasingly popular all-purpose choice is to combine a cabover/low-cab-forward truck and bulk/cargo box fitted with a liftgate. Depending on the product mix involved, these box bodies can be dry, insulated, refrigerated or multi-temp.

This configuration carries more cargo, in less space with more maneuverability than the more traditional conventional-cab/side-load configurations. Fitted with the proper liftgate, these trucks can load and unload at docks, yet still serve non-dock delivery accounts.

When unique constraints and special logistics aren’t the overriding concern, there’s a newly popular breed. Compared with more traditional choices for route delivery, cargo trailers can reduce package handling and the potential for driver injury by simplifying palletized order delivery.

Equipping a cargo trailer with a lift-gate and a pallet-jack lets one route serve both dock delivery and ground delivery accounts, all without manually handling cases. Many distributors using the cargo trailers have noted the ability to add multiple stops to each route citing increased driver productivity.

Although trailers in the 28- to 33-foot range have been popular because of maneuverability, the downside is that when these trailers are loaded all the way to the back, cantilever forces can result in improper weight distribution.

 A better option that is growing in popularity for route delivery is a 35- to 36-foot tandem-axle trailer spec’ed with a rail lift-gate and a 12-foot, 6-inch exterior height. The standard exterior height for most trailers is 13 feet, 6 inches, but because route delivery operations don’t involve stacking pallets two high, eliminating the extra height reduces cost, weight and wind resistance. In addition to the extra cargo capacity from the added length (versus 28-foot units), the tandem-axle configuration ensures proper weight distribution, especially when a heavily loaded pallet is at the end of the lift-gate.