Whether it’s for deliveries or cash & carry runs, retailers are after vans that give them fuel efficiency and reliability.

Husband-and-wife retailers Terry and Carole Birnie are at a bit of a crossroads when it comes to vans. They agree that their two vans need replacing for one more cost-efficient model, but Terry wants to go electric while Carole fears she’ll forget to plug it in!

The couple from Ashley Stores in New Milton, Hampshire, currently have two vans: a Daihatsu Extol, nicknamed the Tonka toy and a Honda Step wagon. The vans are used seven days a week for news deliveries (they have 20-plus rounds), as well as for some grocery deliveries. The news rounds are so extensive that some of the papers are put in boxes and then driven to the paperboys’ and girls’ houses for delivering on from there.

“The Tonka is a good little van, but it’s not very fuel efficient,” says Carole. “Also, because it’s quite petite but high, if you put too much stock in it, it feels like it will fall over. But the good thing is that it turns on a sixpence, which is what you really need around here with all our narrow lanes. It’s reliable and it’s sturdy. I recently had a head-on collision in it. Someone swerved to miss a deer and hit me. The Tonka was fine, but the other person’s car was a write-off!”

Tips on buying van insurance:

• Shop around, but make sure you always give accurate information

• Make sure you have business cover and not just ‘social and domestic’

• If you have other vehicles insured, check whether you qualify for ‘fleet insurance’, which is usually cheaper

• Make sure you and any other staff who may drive the van are covered. Check age restrictions if you have younger members of staff

• Your business insurance may cover you for ‘goods in transit’. First check to ensure it does, then find out how much you are covered for - will it cover your weekly tobacco purchases from the cash and carry?

• Find out if installing an alarm would reduce your premium.

When it comes to the Honda, Carole says they are getting close to the point where they won’t be able to get parts for it - therefore, they’ll soon need a new van.

But there’s absolutely no way the Birnies would be without a van. “We have built our business up on doing deliveries so we will continue to do them. As well as newspapers, we deliver groceries to the elderly and don’t charge for the service,” says Carole. Home news deliveries pay £2 a week for the service.

They used to employ a lady to do all the deliveries, but this became financially unviable when petrol prices began to rise.

Carole’s not yet convinced about buying an electric van, citing the high initial expense and the resale value, as well as the fact that she might forget to recharge it.

“I’d just like a van that was more fuel efficient,” she says, “an all-rounder that’s big enough for deliveries and for visiting the cash & carry.”

However, Terry has been doing his homework and thinks electric is the way forward. “I’ve been looking at the benefits of electricity. We have 20 news rounds and every day at least one of the paper boys or girls doesn’t turn up, and I end up doing it. So I’m chugging around at zero revs, wasting fuel. If we had an electric van it would be like a golf buggy it would stop and start and be cheaper to run. Also we could plug it in on an overnight tariff and we wouldn’t pay road tax. And we could get a government grant towards the purchase price - 20% off the cost of a van up to a maximum of £8,000. The biggest outlay would be a new battery, but that would be in five or 10 years’ time. I can see lots of advantages.”

Evidence certainly points to them being cheap to run. According to nextgreencar.com, fuel costs can be as low as 2p per mile and, for an annual mileage of 10,000 miles per year an electric van could save you £800 in fuel costs.

Van news

• Vauxhall has sold more vans to retail customers than any other manufacturer for the second consecutive year, and built more than 58,000 vans in the UK last year

• Ford builds the most reliable commercial vehicles, according to a Fleet News survey of the 50 largest UK contract hire and leasing companies. The Ford Transit came top of the van reliability survey, with the Ford Transit Connect runner-up

• Vauxhall Commercial Vehicles picked up two gongs at the VansA2Z.com awards 2013, with the Vauxhall Combo winning Best Light Van and the Vauxhall Vivaro ecoFLEX honoured as Diesel ecoVan of the Year. Launched last year, the Combo achieves the highest payload (up to 1,000kg with driver), large load volume (up to 4.2m3), highest rear axle capacity (1,450kg) and longest wheelbase in its sector. Vauxhall’s Vivaro ecoFLEX Euro 5 panel van boasts CO2 of 174g/km and combined fuel economy of 42.7mpg

• The new Ford Fiesta Van is described as delivering class-leading fuel efficiency. All diesel engines in the range achieve sub-100g/km CO2 emissions and 76.4mpg or better. The Fiesta ECOnetic Van features enhanced fuel-saving technologies to deliver 87g/km and 85.6mpg

• The new Renault Kangoo range offers two wheelbase lengths, three versions of the 1.5 litre dCi diesel engine (75, 90 and 110hp) and a choice of two- or five-seat versions of the Kangoo Maxi. The five-seat Crew version features a rear seat that can be tipped forward to accommodate particularly long loads. The line-up includes a choice of engines, two of which return the lowest fuel consumption in their segment

• The new Ford Transit Custom has earned a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP. After being subjected to Euro NCAP’s new heavy vehicle crash tests, it achieved best-in-class marks for child protection (90%), adult protection (84%) and safety features (71%).

Much has been made about the limited range of electric vans, but as they can travel up to 100 miles on a single charge this isn’t a problem for local retailers. The cost of replacement batteries is high, but some companies offer battery rental schemes.

There is lots of choice, too, as more and more van manufacturers are offering electric vehicles. Peugeot is launching a 100% electric version of its popular Partner van. It retails at £21,300 plus VAT, but that government grant could bring this down significantly. However, it is advisable to check to see whether it applies to your chosen van before purchase. The electric Partner has a top speed of 68mph and a range of 106 miles. The battery takes 7.5 hours to charge fully, but a special station is available for fast charging.

Fits the bill

Whether the Birnies plump for an electric model is still under debate. But what they both agree on is the need for a reliable model for their home deliveries.

Nigel and Joanne Owen from Londis Malpas in Cheshire have been pleased with their signwritten Peugeot Bippa. “We chose it because it was a good price at the time and it fitted the bill size-wise,” explains Nigel. “It’s diesel, it’s fuel efficient and reliable. We use it every day for home deliveries. The sign writing means everybody notices us that little bit more.”

And Jimmy Roberts, manager at Eurospar Dolgellau, Gwynedd, has a Citroen Dispatch which he’s had since the store opened in August 2010. “It’s a reliable diesel,” he says.

It, too, is signwritten, which Jimmy says works in helping to get the Eurospar name out there. “When I take the van home, people see it and go into the local Eurospar there and ask for deliveries - but they don’t do them.”

The Dolgellau Eurospar delivers to hotels daily thanks to its growing bakery range, plus they do regular home deliveries. “A lot of our customers are older people. They drive but can’t carry a lot so they like to have their shopping delivered. I employ someone for 16 hours a week to drive the van at other times staff members fill in. The delivery driver takes the groceries indoors for them and even puts them in their cupboards. I’m sure that if we stopped the deliveries we’d lose sales.”

Deliveries are free to customers, but hotels with orders less than £25 are charged £3.50.

The cash & carry run

Even if you don’t do home deliveries, many retailers still use them for trips to the cash & carry.

Amit Patel from Belvedere News, Food & Wine in Kent has a Vauxhall Vivaro, which he says is fuel efficient if you drive it properly, and is good because it “drives like a car”. He adds: “I use the van for my bulk cash & carry buy every two weeks, and for top-ups in between. I do get some items delivered, but often you get stuff that’s close to its expiry date. I prefer to be able to check the dates myself.”

Sarbjit Daley from Sarbs Convenience Store in Wolverhampton has a three-year-old Ford Transit. He chose it because he used to work for Ford, and says he’s very happy with it. “I use it to go to the cash and carry three or four times a week. I prefer this to getting goods delivered because it means I can see the offers that are available. I also find that when I have things delivered, they often have a short shelf life on them. I do shop around, so on different days I go to different cash and carries.”

One issue that has been worrying retailers of late has been reports of thefts from depot car parks. Says Sarbjit: “I’m aware that there have been incidents in depot car parks, and my van was damaged when someone tried to get into the driver’s door. I know it’s cigarettes that they’re after, because they’re seen as a quick buck. Now I always make sure that someone from the cash and carry escorts me out 
to my van when I’ve bought cigarettes. With the amount I spend in the depot, it’s the least they can do for me.”

Unfortunately, incidents in cash and carry car parks are a problem. In a recent article in The Grocer, AG Parfett & Sons chairman Steve Parfett said the “criminal fraternity were very active in our car parks, targeting and threatening customers opportunistically”.

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has issued safety advice to cash and carry customers, much of which relates to tobacco purchases. This includes: never leave tobacco products on open view in your vehicle and ask for assistance if you have a large amount of tobacco to load.