The UK logistics industry is beset with pessimism, according to a new survey showing the confidence index at 47.1 – its lowest level since records began in 2012.

The Barclays-BDO Logistics Confidence Index notes the “unprecedented domestic and global uncertainty created by the pandemic, in addition to ongoing concerns over the UK’s future relationship with the EU and the continuing skills shortages”.

Two-thirds (67.1%) of companies say current business conditions are more difficult than 12 months ago, while a quarter (24.2%) believe they are “much more difficult”.

The survey suggests larger companies have generally found things more difficult, despite being more likely to benefit from a more diverse customer base, as they may have found it harder to adapt quickly to the changing market.

However, Brexit and the driver shortage are the most pressing concerns, notes the report accompanying the survey.

“The industry seems to be experiencing a mixture of nervousness and calm towards Brexit transition. While operators’ attitudes are perhaps slightly more relaxed about – or perhaps simply resigned to – Brexit than last year, possibly because they feel more prepared, nearly half (47.9%) still fear they will be doing less business with EU companies in the event of no trade deal being agreed.”

The lack of drivers, meanwhile, has been compounded by a shortage of skilled warehouse staff.

But, there are some bright spots – namely in e-commerce. One-third of operators said current business conditions were the same or better than a year ago, with those in e-commerce and last-mile delivery faring better than others. But manufacturing sectors such as automotive, aerospace, oil and gas saw “unprecedented levels of disruption”.

The greatest business opportunities in 2021 are predicted to be in online retail (55%), against 32% for manufacturing and just 6% for automotive. But opportunistic acquisitions are also on the cards, with nearly 40% of respondents saying they are likely to make an acquisition in the next 12 months as companies try to extend service offerings or target new industries or customers.

Technology has also seen greater adoption, with 42% of operators using technology to replace humans. And Covid-19 hasn’t battered environmental hopes: 72% say they will continue to invest in green projects over the next year.

“2020 has been an unprecedented year – never has the industry faced such a plethora of multifaceted challenges,” said Ian Cranidge, head of transport & logistics at Barclays Corporate Banking.

“However, longer-term this is an extremely resilient sector, which is ready to bounce back once the pandemic passes. Businesses are using this challenging period to build, by investing in technology and sustainability. The present is undoubtedly tough, but we can look to the future with optimism.”

The total combined UK revenue for the 100+ companies surveyed is £16.4bn ($21.95bn) and, even under current conditions, nearly half (49%) still expect to see profits increase over the next 12 months.

Jason Whitworth, partner, M&A advisory and logistics & supply chain management, at BDO, said: “As we stand today, it feels like we are still in the eye of the storm, in terms of uncertainty. Given this, it is no surprise confidence is low. The pandemic highlighted the vital nature of an effective supply chain, and this survey demonstrates the sector’s resilience and adaptability.

“Encouragingly, the responses reveal a continued appetite to invest for the future – searching out new markets and added-value services, developing technology, automation and sustainability projects and attracting, training and retaining good people.”

You can see the full report here.

(All charts: Barclays-BDO UK Logistics Confidence Index 2020)

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