Sending small pallet consignments of up to six pallets across Britain was once an expensive business but then along came the pallet exchange networks some 20 years ago which changed all that. This concept, based on the hub and spoke principle, was a boon for small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs). It meant that haulier members of a network could collect a full lorry load of pallets from within its local region and truck them directly to a central hub, usually in the centre of Britain, though some exchange networks now have several regional hubs. On arrival at a hub, the haulier would decant the entire load and usually fill most of its vehicle for the return trip, thus eliminating empty one-way runs. This meant that the enormous savings to hauliers could be passed on to their customers in lower charges, and there were also significant ‘green’ benefits. Until now, however, that concept was difficult to replicate for Continental trade.

chazSome exchange networks, like Palletline and Pall-Ex, have been operating the business model for Continental freight for several years but the development tended to be piecemeal and slow to roll out to more than just a half dozen countries. By harnessing the most suitable information technology (IT), however, that has recently changed, so that networks like Palletline and UPN now offer a service to over 25 European countries. This will be great news for SMEs and especially those dealing with e-commerce because it means that they can now obtain good freight rates which much larger businesses have enjoyed for many years, by dint of the purchasing power, when accessing European markets.

UPN has successfully developed its exchange network in the UK over the last 10 years but was wary about entering Europe, though some of its members separately offered a European service as a loss leader to keep a loyal customer. A key problem which two years of UPN’s research of the European market highlighted was that the time taken to specify and price European freight deliveries was too great, relative to the income it generated. The task, therefore, was for IT to build a back end system that could collate large amounts of data and calculate detailed quotes in seconds. This has now been rolled out so that all 65 UPN depot members can create quotes within seconds for load deliveries to 26 European countries. The huge time savings now mean UPN can set new price points for European freight, thus opening the door for SMEs to trade across borders with smaller consignments cost effectively and reassured that their track and trace exports will arrive safely. The next stage in UPN’s IT development will be to open up the system to end users within the next six to 12 months. That will then allow customers to obtain online quotes in real-time and order and pay for European services within seconds.

Palletline is another European operator to see the importance of a slick IT system and has recently re-launched its European service to offer a full import and export service to 29 countries with lead times that can be as little as two days. To make matters even more attractive to small companies wanting to break into the European market, Palletline will introduce quarter, half and full pallet consignments this year to allow customers greater control over costs. Digital signature capture in nine popular European destinations is also available.

Business is good for the pallet networks, which thrive in times of recession. So far this year Palletline looks set to beat last year, says Managing Director, Kevin Buchanan, and for that its IT developments are partly responsible. “Our investment in technology is paying off in a big way,” he adds.

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