How to Plan a Delivery Route

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When delivering goods is an important part of your business model or even your entire business model, planning efficient delivery routes for your drivers is critical to your success. A well-planned delivery route can save your business a substantial amount of money in time saved and fuel conserved.

Building an efficient delivery route doesn’t only save your business money and fuel; it can build and preserve relationships with your customers. When customers rely on regular deliveries, they expect consistency. Delivering products on time according to a schedule, and communicating any issues that will cause a delayed delivery ahead of time, shows your customers that your business is trustworthy, which will lead to long-lasting relationships and referrals to new clients.

Map Out All Stops

The first step in planning a delivery route is creating a map of all the stops on that route. Seeing them all on a map either electronically or noted on paper makes it easy to visualize the driver’s daily schedule and determine which stops can be grouped together and which roadways are the best choices to include in the route.

If your customers have different delivery schedules, like one customer requires daily deliveries and another only needs deliveries once a week, note these differing schedules on your map. This could mean that it makes the most sense for you to develop different delivery routes for different days of the week.

Calculate Distance Traveled and Fuel Consumed

After mapping all the stops on a route, determine the total number of miles a driver will drive on that route. Then, determine approximately how much fuel your delivery vehicles consume to travel that number of miles. You’ll use these figures to calculate delivery service costs.

Keep in mind that fewer miles traveled does not automatically mean less fuel consumed. Test out multiple variations of the delivery route to get a sense of how long different versions of the route take to complete and how much fuel is consumed in each version. When testing different routes, take close note of your fuel costs.

Different routes through the same area can have very different fuel requirements for drivers because of the number of times they have to turn off their trucks, sit at traffic lights and face congested city streets versus highway driving. Some companies, notably UPS, have significantly cut delivery costs by instructing drivers to avoid making left-hand turns. Along with tracking fuel consumption, track drivers’ delivery times because an inefficient route can mean that a significant amount of time is wasted while out on deliveries.

Cluster Nearby Stops

When possible, cluster nearby stops on the delivery route. This saves the driver time by keeping her from having to make multiple trips to the same area of the city while saving money on fuel consumed and, when applicable, parking fees. When stops are very close to each other, the driver can even park her truck and carry deliveries to multiple customers on foot.

Clustering nearby stops could mean making a few large stops at plazas or shopping malls. It could also mean planning a route that hits all customers on the eastbound side of the highway and then making a U-turn to make all westbound deliveries afterward rather than crisscrossing the roadway.

Be Realistic About the Route

Sometimes, the most efficient route is not a realistic one. Widely varied receiving hours, traffic patterns and local parking and idling ordinances can mean that certain customers can only be served during very specific time windows, and when this is the case, it can mean sending drivers through specific neighborhoods multiple times each day.

Other environmental realities that can impact a delivery route include:

  • Local school schedules. School buses make frequent stops and can make deliveries difficult or even impossible.

  • Drainage. When certain roads and parking lots often experience flooding, this will slow down deliveries in those areas.

  • Whether the deliveries are in a largely residential or purely commercial area

  • Local rush-hour traffic patterns

  • Local noise ordinances

When planning a delivery route, you should also plan one or more alternate routes that serve the same customers. These alternate routes will come in handy when there are environmental reasons that your drivers cannot follow their standard route, such as road closures, snowstorms, flooding and traffic-halting vehicle crashes.

Consider All Customers’ Needs

A proposed route that looks great on paper might not actually work if the customers on that route have vastly different schedules and needs. Some stores can only accept deliveries between certain hours, and for others, unloading the truck is a time-consuming process because of traffic and other obstacles that make the loading dock difficult to reach. When planning a delivery route, take note of all your customers’ operating hours and delivery-acceptance hours. Knowing these is key to creating a delivery route that doesn’t just work for your drivers but also works for your customers.

Some deliveries are more urgent than others, plain and simple. This could be because they contain live animals, perishable food items, live plants or substances that need to be stored in specific conditions. When your delivery route consists of time-sensitive deliverables, the route needs to account for them and prioritize these deliveries over others. Prioritizing one delivery can mean building an entire route around that customer.

Other factors to consider when planning a delivery route are factors unique to individual customers, such as:

  • The volume of product each customer typically has delivered

  • The service level each customer requires, such as bringing deliveries inside versus leaving them beside the door

  • The layout of each customer’s business and where it receives deliveries

Study Postal Routes

The United States Postal Service delivers mail according to its established delivery routes almost every single day. Use a postman route planner to help develop your delivery route. Although your driver's route will likely be different from the route USPS drivers follow, knowing the USPS routes through the areas you’ll cover can help you plan around factors like highways and dead ends.

You can find a postman route planner online. Melissa Lookups is a handy website that makes it easy to search for postal routes by zip code. Another way to find out about local postal routes is to ask your local post office or speak to a local mail-delivery person.

Use a Delivery-Route Planner App

A delivery-route planner app is one of the most useful tools you can use when planning a delivery route. Apps like Circuit Delivery Route Planner, Routific and RoadWarrior Route Planner make it very simple to see potential routes through cities and regions and factor in conditions drivers face when making deliveries, like traffic patterns at various times of the day and customers’ conflicting receiving hours.

Although a delivery-route planner app is a great tool, it is no substitute for thoroughly researching the route you need to cover and building a delivery route that fits your customers’ needs and your available resources. Sometimes, the route that doesn’t immediately look like the most efficient one is the best one possible for your business. Always be willing to experiment with new route configurations and update the delivery route as needed.