With Covid-19 causing immense challenges and emotional impact for many, it has had a wider effect on supply chains across all industries, with government guidelines forcing unexpected closures affecting manufacturers and raw material suppliers. The inevitable knock on effect on stock levels at merchants like Worcester Timber Products has been unprecedented.
To set the scene and aid our customers in their planning and to manage expectations, we have put together some information on the key areas effected, and some solutions wherever possible.
Why are there shortages in building materials?
The building industry is facing a ‘massive shortage’ caused by the coronavirus lockdown. Tradesmen and small building firms are struggling to get their hands on supplies as the main factories build back up to full capacity after being temporarily closed at the start of the pandemic.
And that’s led to some opportunist pricing.
While some Britons turned to baking sourdough loaves and banana bread, others have been tackling much delayed DIY projects, ranging from mending fences to laying patios and skimming walls.
With the fallout from the pandemic putting foreign holidays and care-free shopping trips out of reach, analysts think money that would otherwise have been spent on summer getaways and fashion is being diverted into home improvements, with small landscaping projects such as patios and raised flowerbeds proving popular.
There has been extreme demand for external materials like fence posts and panels, exterior paint and garden sleepers.
For example, plaster factories have not been able to keep up with the extra demand, even though some businesses are working overtime, drawing parallels with the flour shortage created by the lockdown baking bonanza. Plaster-makers are optimistic that supply levels are now normalising although the shortages created by a 250% increase in demand for Indian sandstone – commonly used to pave driveways and patios – is expected to take longer to level out.
We look at specific supplies in more detail:
As the construction economy wakes up, demand for timber has shot through the roof. As well as the UK industry, Europe and America also take from the same forests we do. Normally there is plentiful supply, but because the mills in countries like Lithuania and Latvia went into lockdown for two months, they were unable to cut, mill or treat timber, causing their stocks to completely run down.
Worcester Timber Products normally keep high stock levels of excellent quality timber, but demand has now exhausted par stocks, and as soon as a delivery arrives, its already fulfilling back orders and out on delivery vans almost immediately. The team are keeping a very keen on the quality of stocks that do become available. With pressure for production to be ramped up even more, quality control may slip. Worcester Timber Products have strong relationships with core suppliers as their track record for high quality timber is exemplary.
We do however anticipate these issues will carry on to some extent for most of the year and into 2021.
With 95% of plaster coming from British Gypsum, they unfortunately decided to simply turn off the factory on day one of lockdown, reportedly causing huge clogs in the machines. When returning to the factory, they then had to spend two weeks unclogging the machines. They are now manufacturing day and night to get stocks back up to normal but are still below needed levels. A time frame for normal stock availability is not clear, though we understand from our customers and trade customers it is getting better.
The whole of the UK is on plasterboard allocation, again due to British Gypsum closing and stopping their manufacturing. We are aware that merchants are are ordering a standard board from Poland (at an extremely inflated rate).
Cement / Concrete Products
There is clear shortage of cement and concrete products throughout the UK and beyond. Lead times not only extend into days, but also weeks and now months. Manufacturers are warning this may get even worse. Despite excellent relationships with the best in the business, Worcester Timber Products and many other major suppliers to the trade and consumer, continue to face unprecedented challenges on the supply of concrete products.
However, a solution to consider is the Fencemate DuraPost system. The versatile DuraPost is made from a single piece of sheet steel, cold rolled to form a very strong “H” section. It is also made in the UK! The big pluses are that they are up to 80% lighter than the equivalent concreteposts and will not rot as wooden posts do. The post is pre-drilled with fixing holes before being galvanised to give a 15-year manufacturers guarantee. For those that are not keen on a galvanised finish and for even longer life (and 25-year manufacturers guarantee), the posts are further treated with a range of coloured coating which provide a great alternative to concrete. DuraPost is also ideal as it uses slightly lest post mix… again, another solution to the supply chain issues.
Fencing has been the hardest hit from this, as the retail market stayed very strong during lockdown, with fencing one of the highest sellers. With the massive shortage of timber forcing some manufacturers to close, supplies have almost completely dried up. With Sawmills also closing in August for their annual shutdowns, they are prioritising trade customers over retail, but at present it’s extremely difficult to meet demand, and the number of back orders throughout the chain has never been seen before.
The shortage of timber has created a booming black market for fencing, where panels change hands for four times their usual price, and reports of theft has also increased significantly. Several chains are also offering worn or shop-soiled stock to satisfy demand.
Other key reasons for the shortage, as experts have published elsewhere, include:
- Shipments of timber intended for Britain have been diverted to the booming economies of China and Dubai, where building firms are prepared to pay over the odds.
- At the same time, a wet summer has meant the softwood timber harvest in Sweden, Russia and the Baltics has been smaller than usual.
- Fierce gales and widespread flooding in January and February have left Britain’s fences in their worst shape for years.
The problems have been further detailed by Amateur Gardening Magazine.
Hilary Baker, chief executive of the Fencing Contractors Association, warned that several small and medium-sized timber suppliers in Britain – who convert the European softwood into fencing panels – are ‘on the verge of ruin’.
She said the shortage of panels has led to panic buying by DIY enthusiasts. “It’s a bit like a bread shortage. Joe Public goes out and buys loads,” Mrs Baker added. “I spoke to one contractor who normally stocks 3,000 panels and now he has none. Someone else drove 60 miles to buy one fencing panel. It is absolutely crazy.”
She went on: “The Fencing Contractors Association is working closely with its members and the industry to assist with this prolonged crisis but urges customers to be understanding of the problems and not to ‘panic the prices up’.”
Another area of demand, that continues to increase as everyone is trying to get their gardens done while the weather is fair. Some suppliers hold high stocks but it is likely special items or premium products will be out of stock or subject to long delays. Sandstone from India has also been a problem. India was put into one of the strictest lockdowns with all mining stopped and all exports cancelled. Many UK providers have containers enroute, but there is a nationwide backlog and a large queue at sea of ships waiting to dock and unload.
What has Worcester Timber Products done to reduce their supply chain issues?
The team have worked tirelessly around the clock to keep on top of all stock levels to make sure all our trade customers can carry on working to protect their livelihood, as well as trying to meet the overwhelming demand from consumer orders.
Prior to lockdown we had commenced a review of our stock management system and were seeking to upgrade software to ensure we provide the highest levels of service long term, but sadly that was pushed aside to ensure all available resources were reallocated to manage the extraordinary volume of orders and the associated customer service communication, planning and logistics. We continue to have limited supplies and express our frustrations daily on behalf of customers and can only apologise to those who continue to wait, and to those whom are unable to. Like everyone else, we are working with one aim, to return to normal levels and provide the products and service, without delay, to our customers. That is what they expect, and that is what they deserve.