Twenty percent surge in demand for dry goods taxes supply chain continuity

A sign on an empty flour shelf in the Save Mart grocery store on Plumb Lane in Reno, Nevada - image taken on 3-15-20 - Brian Bahouth

Imagine if the demand for products ramped up to peak holiday volume in the space of a couple days. Without a doubt, there would be a lag in the supply chain. Inventory would be sold first. Producers would make more of the products in demand, and motor carriers would take the products to retail locations and direct to consumers.

According to Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, panic buying in response to the coroanavirus outbreak prompted a 20 percent surge in the demand for dry goods in Nevada on Thursday and Friday of last week, especially in southern Nevada. Enos says the supply chain is taxed but robust and catching up with demand.

“The reality is, we have a supply chain that can meet these demands. We are meeting these demands. Is it getting a little taxed right now, absolutely. We’ve gone through about a month and a half of inventory and a number of products in four days,” Enos said in a phone interview. “Of course we’ve had the issues with everything from toilet paper to hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes in the last few weeks. But our manufacturers, our distributors, our truck drivers, and of course those folks, the frontline people in the grocery stores and the pharmacies and the Targets and the Walmarts, they’re doing everything that they can to ensure that you and I and every American can get everything that that we need.”

The toilet paper, tissue, and paper towel shelves in the Save Mart on Plumb Lane in Reno – image taken on 3-15-20 – Brian Bahouth

An emergency declaration by President Trump enabled the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to relax hours of service rules for commercial vehicle drivers, which allows truckers to drive for longer durations without mandated rest. The goal is to meet the demand for medical supplies, sanitation materials, and general consumer items. Enos said the hours of service rule suspension would help get needed products to end users faster without compromising safety.

“We do feel that these hours of service suspensions, which doesn’t absolve a truck driver or a motor carrier from ensuring that drivers aren’t out there fatigued, but it does give us a little more flexibility to deliver the goods that we need.”

Detention Time

Detention time is the time a motor carrier spends loading or unloading their vehicle beyond 2 hours, to include wait times. Through a truck logistics monitoring interface known as Freightwaves SONAR, Paul Enos has observed an increase in detention times over the past several days.

“There was a picture shared on Facebook the other day by a truck driver who is waiting to get into a Procter and Gamble facility, which makes things like toilet paper and paper products and all those things that have been flying off the shelf. That line was over a mile long. When you look at detention time across the country, it says the average detention time is three hours, almost three hours across every sector.

“If you look at distributors that are the ones that have a lot of these products that consumers demand, that are then being moved to grocery stores, the national wait was almost six and a half hours. So having the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration realize the issue at hand that trucks are absolutely integral and essential to responding to this crisis. They’ve decided to suspend those rules (the hours of service rules).”

Eventually the freight moves. Elected leaders and emergency managers in Nevada and elsewhere have been consulting with Enos to check on the state of supply chains.

“I spent the last few days working with our Nevada Highway Patrol, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, folks in the governor’s office, local government, working on a way to ensure that we have supply chain continuity, that store shelves are stocked, especially with those basic things like food, that our medical providers get the medicine, the test kits and everything that they need to respond to this crisis.”

There was a run on flour at the Save Mart in Reno on Plumb Lane – image taken on 3-15-20 – Brian Bahouth

Worth noting, older populations are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, which poses a challenge for the motor carrier industry.

“We’ve also seen a little bit of an uptick in drivers who are calling in sick. We’re an older demographic. Our truck drivers average age is about 50, and what we’re hearing on the media is that this coronavirus has a greater impact on older folks. Truck drivers are human beings just like all of us. We want to make sure that they’re not going out there on the road sick and endangering somebody else,” Enos said.

For-profit companies makeup much of the nation’s capacity to respond to national emergencies. At all levels of government, agencies are working with critical industry sectors, to include trucking, during the coronavirus emergency.

“I will never bet against the American private sector,” Enos said. “I think that gives me a tremendous amount of confidence to see the folks there from the private sector standing with the President yesterday saying, ‘Hey, we’re all a part of this.’

“When you look at what happens during natural disasters, you have Walmart and Home Depot and Lowe’s. They really are the best equipped to respond to things like tornadoes and hurricanes. Of course trucking is a huge part of ensuring that they have all the materials that they need to respond to a crisis, the first responders have everything that they need. And once again, having those things to rebuild after a crisis.”

Enos sees a silver lining in the coronavirus scare for his industry. The shock of panic buying provides a stress test for the supply chain and thereby shows its weaknesses. Enos says the trucking industry and federal government are already studying the lessons of the coronavirus outbreak. Lessons that will make the nation’s transportation system more secure in the future.

Enos is confident the supply chain will catch up with demand for products without too much delay or shortages. He emphasized patience and a positive attitude.

“Humans are pretty adaptable to responding to all these kind of things. I think we just we need to be a little patient. We need to take our breaths. This is a time to be nicer to folks, especially those people that we see at the grocery stores. I was at Raley’s last night and you could tell they’re taxed. So a smile and a thank you I think goes a long way today.”