Moving industry finally waves goodbye to doldrums

Summer is here, schools are letting out, and the moving season has arrived. Moving vans are pulling into more Americans' driveways than last year, when a sagging economy and high mortgage rates prompted many Americans to stay put. In 1982 the number of moves dropped 4.1 percent over depressed 1981 levels.

''There has been a dramatic upturn'' in the volume of moves this summer, says E. S. Rawls, president of Wheaton Van Lines.

''Every segment of our business is up significantly over last year,'' adds an official at United Van Lines, where shipments in the first eight working days of June were up 10.4 percent. Most industry participants estimate the number of shipments is up in the range of 4-6 percent for the year to date, after being up only fractionally in the first quarter.

Nevertheless, fewer families will hit the road in 1983 than in the peak moving years of the late '70s. The number of moves ''is nowhere near getting back to the levels of several years ago, there is no question about it,'' comments Edward Bland, Atlas Van Lines president.

Americans probably will not move as often in the '80s as they did in the '70s , say industry observers. Larry Stein, marketing vice-president for Allied Van Lines, says,''We don't anticipate that the industry will grow back to that level.''

The presence of more dual-career couples, a greater desire for lasting ties to a community, and a ''much more equal geographical distribution of talent'' will all contribute to the slowdown, Mr. Stein says.

Meanwhile, the American way of moving appears to be changing for those who do relocate.

For example, corporate-sponsored moves usually about equal in number the moves paid for by individuals. But so far this summer, the corporate-style move is not bouncing back as fast as the type paid for by individuals, or cash on delivery (COD) moves. ''The turnup is greatest among COD moves,'' says Joseph Ruffolo, executive vice-president of household goods at North American Van Lines , the largest of the nation's moving firms.

In a survey earlier this year, the Employee Relocation Council predicted that the number of corporate moves in 1983 would be ''stable at best.'' And even if the number of corporate moves increases in 1983, as some relocation managers now are starting to expect, the pickup will be less pronounced than in individual moves, a council spokeswoman says. Individually-paid-for moves swing more widely with the state of the economy and the level of interest rates, she adds.

The destinations for individual moves are concentrated in pockets ''all over the Sunbelt,'' says Mr. Stein at Allied. There is also ''outward movement from the Middle West,'' he notes. And for the first time, Allied statistics show more people moving out of California than moving in.

The moving experience is also changing because moving companies are offering a much greater variety of services and pricing schemes. The wider moving menu was made possible by the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which deregulated the industry. ''Until deregulation, everyone charged the same price (for the same service). There was no shopping,'' says Mr. Ruffolo, the North American executive.

One new approach is the ''we drive, you load'' concept pioneered by North American. For a savings of 30-45 percent over conventional moves, homeowners load their own goods onto vans supplied by North American. Company drivers bring vans to the new homes, where customers unload the van. The cost, Mr. Ruffolo says, ''is comparable to U-Haul and Ryder'' truck rentals and offers the service of an experienced driver and corporate insurance on the van contents.

To boost customer satisfaction and thus repeat business, Allied recently began offering what it calls ''coming home'' service. ''We guarantee that within 48 hours (after the move is completed) a trained individual will come to the home and assure that the service you ordered was performed - and if it was not, will take action to correct (the problem),'' Mr. Stein says.

Movers are also beginning to compete on the price of individual moves. For example, Wheaton says it is charging 6.4 percent less per pound of goods moved than most other movers. Since January, most moving companies have raised rates roughly 19 percent. At the same time, Wheaton has simplified its tarrifs to make them easier to understand and has reduced the extra fees movers often charge for hauling especially bulky, heavy items like boats.

Moving company executives acknowledge that moves paid for by individuals still subsidize corporate moves. Companies that promise to channel their business to one mover can get discounts ranging up to 30 percent, a level that eliminates most, if not all, the mover's profit.

According to John Fristoe, a moving-industry expert at the Interstate Commerce Commission, ''To the degree they are competing in such a tough [battle] for that business, they have to make it up somewhere else, or go broke.''

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