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Better times are ahead for industrial trucks says BITAs Secretary General James Clark

There was no escaping the market challenges that shaped 2009 sales of industrial trucks. However, James Clark, BITA’s Secretary General, has seen some encouraging signs that may signal that better times are ahead in 2010.

Headlines at the end of January brought the welcome news that the UK is officially – just – out of recession. However, it will take time to feel the benefit of the recovery. And like so many sectors of business, industrial trucks spent the latter part of 2009 continuing their struggle against incredibly tough market conditions.

As the sole provider of industrial truck sales statistics, which are contributed by – and only made available to – its members, BITA keeps a close watch on market conditions to help with business forecasting and planning. According to our latest sales statistics, orders for new forklift trucks continued to fall in 2009, with a 33.6% drop during 2009, consolidating a 14.5% fall during 2008.

In terms of sales volumes, orders for a little over 17,600 new forklift trucks were taken by British Industrial Truck Association members during 2009 8,900 fewer than in 2008.

Several trends have shaped this outcome. Of course there has been a general decline in demand for forklift trucks, as customers have fought their own battles with the recession – some successfully, some less so.

There has also been a trend toward truck users extending their existing truck hire contracts beyond planned termination dates, rather than replacing them with new stock. Although used truck sales figures are not part of BITA’s recording process, we hear there have been significant increases in the sales of used equipment, which in turn, of course, reduces the potential for truck suppliers to sell new units.

Among the major forklift categories, the market for engine powered counterbalance trucks was hardest hit during 2009, with orders for diesel and LPG models falling by 42% and 45% respectively during the year. This fall is hardly surprising given that diesel and LPG counterbalance trucks are used in large numbers by some of the most badly affected sectors of the economy, such as engineering and the supply chain to the building industry.

The market for electric forklifts has shown a little more resilience: unit orders for electric powered counterbalance trucks fell by 36% during 2009 and the market for warehouse trucks by 25%.

These are clearly sobering figures, and I know that BITA members have worked incredibly hard to balance their own needs against those of their customers in these difficult times.

But spring is approaching, and on the basis of a few small indications maybe we should permit ourselves a few moments of optimism as we look forward. For example, in most truck categories there has been a noticeable slowdown in the rate at which order intake has declined over recent months. For some truck categories the market has stabilised and is hopefully set to begin to show a positive trend: the markets for powered pallet trucks, pedestrian stackers and low level order pickers display such a pattern.

Unit orders for very narrow aisle (VNA) trucks, expressed on an annualised basis, have shown four consecutive months of modest growth since September 2009, demonstrating that the demand for space-saving warehouse trucks has taken root.

A further hopeful view can be drawn from the CBI’s Quarterly Trends Survey, the CBI’s measure of UK industry intentions to invest in plant and machinery. This has shown four consecutive quarters increase and can now be viewed as having stabilised. Of course we must still wait for those intentions to translate into action, but signs are beginning to point in a more favourable direction for the UK forklift truck market.

BITA is cautiously hopeful that when the doors open at the IMHX exhibition in November, we’ll be able to look back and breathe a sigh of relief that the worst of the storm has passed.

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