USA Today says major retailers “benefited from California port trucking companies that forced their drivers into debt, made them work up to 20 hours a day and sometimes paid them pennies per hour.”  Photo: U.S. Dept. of Transportation

USA Today says major retailers “benefited from California port trucking companies that forced their drivers into debt, made them work up to 20 hours a day and sometimes paid them pennies per hour.” Photo: U.S. Dept. of Transportation

I didn’t mean to, but I ended up ignoring the news over the four-day July 4th weekend. But this little gem right here was the first story to catch my eye on the 5th.

There’s a lot going on in this piece, which is essentially USA Today’s Part II look at alleged unfair labor practices in trucking today. I’m not going to focus on the labor issue here – although after 30-plus years in the workforce, trust me when I tell you I have very definite and strong opinions about the relationship between labor and business owners, “trickle-down” economics, and wealth/income inequality.

Maybe we’ll get into that some other time.

For me, the more immediate takeaway from this story is a new reality that some retailers don’t seem to grasp yet. And that leads directly to a lesson that smart fleet managers will take to heart: If you’re a retailer – particularly a “retail giant” – it matters more than ever which companies you partner with to serve your customers.

Let’s put it this way: If you’re a holistic retailer marketing goods to urban customers with a New Age, sustainable vibe, you cannot afford to have even a hint of slave labor anywhere in your business chain – from the Chinese companies making the goods you sell, to the trucking fleets hauling your products to your retail store or to your customers’ doorsteps. And it doesn’t matter how many YouTube videos your company posts about funding schools or bringing water to Third World communities. If you get busted being exploitive or abusive in any way – or even if there's the impression that you are – your PR reps are going to be on the morning news shows trying to explain why you’re not total hypocrites and manage a public relations disaster that seemingly came out of nowhere.

That’s because PR disasters today routinely come out of nowhere. The days where you had to deal with a Clark Kent-type reporter poking around asking questions while your execs bought time and dreamed up suitable responses are over. The internet has given everyday people sitting at home unbelievably powerful research and investigative tools. All it takes today is for one customer to start wondering if your company is really as benevolent and wonderful as you claim it to be and then to start looking around. And if they find something they don’t like, and their subsequent social media post goes viral…?

Well, have your people tell Anderson Cooper I said, “Hello.”

At the same time, truck fleets need to understand this new reality and the pressure retailers are now clearly under to live up to the standards they promote to the public. And savvy fleets will understand right away that there are opportunities to be had here.

For years now, OEMs have been telling transportation journalists that an important reason for pursuing various technology paths – usually “green” energy solutions or advanced safety systems – is that these technologies (and many others) will become increasingly important to customers and end users of their products and services.

This is a consumer trend that is clearly established now and gaining traction. We all do it – often without thinking much about it. If I’m going to buy a product that’s being offered by three retailers for the same price, I’m going to choose to spend my money with the vendor whose values and ideologies most closely align with my own.

What does that mean for trucking? Well, if you’re a retailer that likes to tout clean energy solutions, then you’d damn well better have a high percentage of the trucks hauling your goods using the latest alternative-fuel technology. Likewise, if you manufacture infant car seats, in this day and age, you’d be insane to ship those products in trucks not equipped with the latest and greatest vehicle safety systems on the market today.

The good news, of course, is that fleets that choose to invest in new technology increasingly have a compelling story to tell to retail customers dealing with these new competitive realities.

The pressure being generated by social media for companies to live up to the standards they advertise today is not going away. Indeed, as this USA Today article indicates, it is only likely to increase. Smart fleets today will want to position themselves in ways that help retailers reinforce the public image(s) they put forward in every way possible.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

View Bio