Since February, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented growth in demand for medical supplies, groceries, household goods, and e-commerce fulfillment and delivery, leaving some companies struggling to keep up with demand. Other businesses saw demand suddenly plummet, leading to layoffs, bankruptcies, and temporary or permanent closures.
This volatility has had a profound impact on warehouse and distribution center operations, including forklift fleets. “Some customers couldn’t get enough forklifts because their throughput tripled, while for others, demand nosedived and they had trucks sitting idle,” says Bill Byrd, senior manager of national accounts for Toyota Material Handling. “That threw a complete monkey wrench into their planning.”
Lift truck fleets generally remain fairly static year over year, so many were not prepared for a sudden change in circumstances. According to manufacturers and dealers, though, there are steps forklift fleet managers can take to not only respond to their current situation, but also to prepare for volatility they may confront in the future. The following are some of their suggestions.
When considering rentals, says Dan Zinn, director of sales for Crown Equipment Corp., start by looking at what he calls the “core fleet.” “Even taking into account the ups and downs of seasonality ... what is the core business you can always count on? Use leasing to build the fleet to that need and meet fluctuating needs by supplementing with short- or long-term rentals,” he advises.
Having an appropriate balance of leasing and rentals will help to protect against unwanted costs if there’s another economic downturn, says Craig Brubaker, senior vice president of operations at Alta Equipment, a dealer of Hyster equipment and services. Leased equipment is locked in for the full term (usually three to five years), and there are steep penalties for returning trucks early. Long-term rentals have lower cancellation penalties and may offer more flexibility with respect to returns, while short-term rentals usually have no penalties. If business volumes are volatile, a mix of 60% fair-market–value leases supplemented with 20% long-term rentals (one to five years) and 20% short-term rentals (from one day to a few months) may be advantageous, he suggests. The level of volatility and/or the desired degree of flexibility will ultimately drive the ratio and mix of options, he adds.
Forklift dealers can offer their customers more rental options and flexibility than third parties can, Duck says. In addition to short-term rentals, his company, for example, offers terms of two to three years, with a lower rate and minimal penalties for turning in equipment early. The dealer also offers five-year rentals that are similar in length to a lease but come with discounted rates and allow for downsizing a fleet without penalties.
Brubaker, the Hyster dealer, mentions three additional lease types that offer flexibility. A “budget lease” allows fleets to take delivery of new equipment now and defer payments until 2021. “Power by the hour” leases charge customers based on actual equipment usage, rather than on projected use. He also points to Hyster’s Freedom Advantage lease, which is structured as two multiyear terms and permits the customer to end the lease after the first, longer term if business circumstances change.
Leasing equipment from an authorized dealer together with a fleet management system allows the vendor to utilize data to analyze operations and determine whether a different type of lease would make financial sense, says Tina Goodwin, director of fleet management for Yale Materials Handling Corp. For example, because Yale’s optional Fleet Optics program tracks and monitors users’ utilization and maintenance, “we can point out when [fleets] are over- or underutilizing the equipment” and suggest extending or shortening the lease in response, she says. “We can help customers save money by determining, for instance, that the optimal life of a lease may be three years instead of five years, because we can see that there will be more expenses in years four and five than expected because of changed circumstances.”
Goodwin notes that during the pandemic, forklifts at some businesses have seen unusually heavy use as operators strive to keep up with unexpectedly high demand. Fleet management technology can help users save money by alerting them when trucks are likely to exceed the maximum weekly hours allowed under their lease; managers can then rotate equipment to even out usage and avoid being charged overtime, she says.
Byrd says there’s a silver lining for fleets that find themselves with idle equipment because of the pandemic: Now is a good time to conduct a comprehensive review of the state of your fleet and to carry out both planned maintenance and preventive repairs. That way, equipment will be in optimal shape when business starts to recover. (Don’t forget to include power sources and related equipment, such as batteries and chargers, in your maintenance review, he adds.)
Another drawback to using a lot of specialized or customized lift trucks: “If you have somewhat unique specs, that can hold you back from using short-term rental assets when they’re needed,” Toyota’s Byrd observes. However, a dealer might be willing to invest in unique or specialized configurations for established customers who will regularly rent that equipment, such as during peak seasons.
Each expert we spoke with offered this recommendation: If your circumstances have changed or you have a challenge to overcome, explain the situation to your lift truck dealer. Ask what standard options are available and whether a more flexible arrangement might be possible. A well-capitalized, highly professional forklift dealer will have the knowledge and resources to set up flexible plans, including customized programs. “We work closely with customers to understand their business, and we know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” Alta Equipment’s Brubaker says. (How has the pandemic affected what fleet managers are asking lift truck dealers for? See the accompanying sidebar.)
Although there are fewer face-to-face meetings nowadays, the importance of open and frequent communication remains, says Stein. “We’ve changed how we connect and communicate, but that shouldn’t change what we can provide to clients,” he says.
We asked forklift dealers and OEMs whether the Covid-19 pandemic has changed what their customers are asking for. Across the board, the answer was “yes.” Here are a few examples of the kinds of requests they’ve been fielding lately: