means there are some great deals on this year's models
There's good news for anyone who has ever been cut up in traffic by a gesticulating oaf in a shabby Transit - White Van Man is a dying breed.
Silver, it appears, is now the colour of choice for the discerning goods vehicle driver, and the upgrade has brought with it a change in behaviour. The Social Issues Research Centre has found that a posher van - most commonly a silver metallic-finish vehicle with a range of extras - has turned the scourge of the streets into more considerate drivers.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says that vans sales were up 0.3% to 327,456 for the rolling year to February, with an enormous rise of 38.9% in the medium-sized vans category. One of the factors driving growth is online shopping, as more consumers elect to have their purchases delivered to their door. There's some good news for independent retailers, though, as the increased demand has forced vehicle suppliers to sharpen up their act, with the result that there are now a lot of very good vehicles at affordable prices, so the run to the local cash and carry is a lot more economical - and a great deal more comfortable - than a few years ago.
For manufacturers, the huge increase in the quality of their offering is the price that has to be paid to compete in a very crowded marketplace. SMMT figures show Ford maintained its market-leading position in 2006, outstripping Vauxhall in a two-horse race for dominance, with Mercedes, VW, Citroën and Renault jostling for market share behind them.
When it comes to choosing the right wheels for your business, Lawrie Alford, sector head for automotive and leasing at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), points out that choosing a smaller vehicle can be a false economy if you expect your business to grow in the next few years. "It's a common error with new businesses," he says. "It's easy to underestimate how much you will grow over the three years of a vehicle leasing agreement - and some contracts can be very hard to get out of."
Another advantage of the intense competition among LGV dealers is that they are paying a lot of attention to customers' needs. "The range of options and extras on new vehicles means you can tailor-make a van to your own requirements," says Alford. Extras might include additional security packages and a built-in chiller box.
Alford appreciates that many retailers will be tempted to use the family estate for the cash and carry run, but advises caution. "There's a security issue, of course, because everyone can see what's in your vehicle, but you should also be aware that non-commercial vehicles aren't made to carry very heavy loads and you could risk damaging your vehicle or causing an accident."
Even purpose-built vans, he adds, have a maximum payload, and it is illegal to carry more than this limit.
Small and family businesses, including independent retailers, own and operate 1.3 million non-fleet vehicles in the UK, and according to the FTA's Jim Magner, the primary consideration when choosing a new van must be the vehicle's size. "Anything over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight - that's the size of the largest Transit - will require you to hold an operator's licence," he says. "That involves tachographs and strict rules controlling driver's hours. Below that size drivers will need only the usual licence and road safety knowledge."
The latter, he says, is worth emphasising. "Any driver should be aware that it's the store's reputation and image they are representing when on the road - especially if the store's branding is on the vehicle."
If it's an employee who's driving for you, remind them that it's not only considerate driving that you expect. They should be aware of the environmental impact and, some might say, the more important financial implications of tearing around town in a fully-loaded delivery van. The fuel burnt goes straight onto the business overheads, so encourage them to slow down, plan ahead to pick the best routes and switch off the engine when loading and unloading. You'll also want to ensure tyre pressures are checked frequently to keep fuel economy high.
Also worth considering is the Safe and Fuel Efficient Drivers Scheme training course for LGV drivers. The scheme aims to encourage safer, cleaner and cheaper driving, and is training van drivers in advanced driving techniques which reduce the amount of fuel used and cut carbon emissions without any noticeable impact on delivery times.
The Department for Transport initiative is free to van drivers in England and it's claimed that the training will result in fewer accidents, lower insurance premiums, lower running costs and higher resale value of vehicles.
It's now more important than ever to keep your vehicle in good condition, as new corporate manslaughter legislation will make employers responsible for deaths caused by unroadworthy cars used by their employees for work-related journeys.
Craig Blakemore of law firm Mace & Jones says the new rules will apply to employees who use their own cars for work. "It is vital that employers ensure that all vehicles, whether company-owned or employee-owned, are roadworthy," he says. "The new legislation will mean that the organisation, or a senior individual within the organisation, can be prosecuted for management failures that lead to the deaths of employees."
If you do ask an employee to use their own car for pick-ups or deliveries, make sure the vehicle is insured for business use and has a current MOT - and you'll need to check that the driver holds a valid licence.
Insurance is the other essential and there's help in this area from a source close to home. The Post Office's venture into car insurance has proved a success with 300,000 UK policies in force. It's now extending the offer to include a van insurance deal for small businesses.
The brokering service searches for the best deal available from a number of insurance companies, but adds accident assistance, the option of a replacement van, and the unusual bonus of a free physio recovery programme for drivers who are hurt in an accident, helping them to get back to work quicker.
Once you have made the investment in a vehicle it would be a shame to use it only for a couple of visits to the wholesaler every week, and store owners such as Martin and Gillian Smyth, who run Spar Clarawood in Belfast, serve their local community by delivering customers' shopping to their door.
"A lot of the people on the estate where we are have been customers for years, and are getting on a bit now," says Martin. "Some come in to do their shopping and leave it behind the till, and we run it home for them later - others will leave a note or phone in and we'll put a bag together for them."
The Smyths don't charge for the service. "We do a couple of trips a day, for elderly or housebound customers, and Gillian usually tries to fit them in around a trip to the bank," says Martin. "I suppose it does cost us money and time, but it's all part of the service for our loyal customers."
Loads of potential
VAUXHALL'S updated Corsavan, which comes to market this month, packs plenty of load space into its small dimensions and won't upset local residents if you are unloading the day's supplies on a busy street. With a full-length flat load floor and a wider tailgate to give it a payload of 550kg, Vauxhall expects the Corsavan to be popular with van users who do a lot of city driving, and appreciate the compact dimensions. It may lack the capacity of a larger LGV, but you'll always be able to find a parking space.
FORD'S new Transit shows that the reliable old warhorse is still going strong after more than 40 years as the van driver's favourite. The short wheelbase models are designed for driving around town while maintaining a good load space, and air conditioning, cruise control and satellite navigation are all options in the 2007 range.
VW's Crafter is the largest of its vans and a winner of last year's What Van? Van of the Year Awards. As well as a load capacity of 17 cubic metres, and a maximum load of 2,630kg, the Crafter has a choice of four five-cylinder engines and a six-speed manual gearbox. The smaller Transporter is possibly more appropriate for the demands of the local retailer and Volkswagen is offering extra equipment deals to 07 plate van purchasers, with optional extras including alarms, air conditioning and electric windows bundled into two value-for-money packages.
RENAULT is meeting the environmental challenge head on with its biodiesel-compatible Trafic and Master models. Although they are currently available only in France, the models are part of the company's stated commitment that all its diesel engines will be able to run on fuel blends containing 30% biofuel by 2009. Vehicles running on biofuels emit the same amount of CO2 as is absorbed by the plants made to make the fuel, so are far less damaging to the environment than conventional fuels when measured on a 'well-to-wheel' basis.
All tanked up
MERCEDES-BENZ VANS invested £1.25bn in the development of the new Sprinter, launched last summer. The latest incarnation of European market leader in the 3.5 tonne van sector has some unmistakable Mercedes design features, and taking into account the variety of lengths, roof heights, body types, optional extras, engines and transmissions, it is available in an almost infinite choice of configurations.
FIAT brings its new Scudo to the UK this month with the promise of
"a capacious load capacity with MPV practicality and car-like comfort, performance and handling". The panel van version is available in Comfort and Deluxe trim levels, which includes power-assisted steering, ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), a dual-stage driver's airbag and a stereo radio/CD player with steering wheel-mounted controls all included in the entry-level specification.
CITROEN has extended its Dispatch range to offer more choice, more space and more features. Both payload and load volume have been increased and the loading sill is lower while the side sliding doors are 69mm wider.
A driver's airbag, ABS and EBA are standard, while passenger, lateral and curtain airbags and ESP are optional as are satellite navigation, GPS stolen vehicle tracking, pneumatic rear suspension, rear parking sensors and full air conditioning.
PEUGEOT's Partner van now has a revamped design to improve practicality and reliability and has an impressive payload for a smaller van.
It's big enough to take a week's worth of stock, but it's small enough to nip between the traffic on the way back
to the store.
A commercial vehicle might seem an expensive luxury to the small retailer, but there is an alternative to buying a van that you will use only for a couple of trips a week.
Commercial vehicle rental specialist TLS Vehicle Rental says that about 60% of its vehicles are now being rented for longer than six months, a rise of about 10% compared with a year ago.
"Rental is very price competitive against leasing in the short and medium term," says managing director Andrew Way. "The traditional perception of rental is that it is mainly a short-term solution to a vehicle need, such as when your own van is off the road, but this is becoming less and less true. A shift has taken place over the past few years and buyers are now starting to look at rental in the same way as other acquisition methods."
There's also the bonus of flexibility. "When you need a van, it's yours. When you don't, it's ours," says Way.
TLS has produced two guides designed to help purchasers decide whether renting would work for them. Things to Consider Before You Contract Hire and Things to Consider Before You Purchase are both available at www.tls.co.uk.