After lockdown?

It’s tough times for everyone. It’s not really possible to say such a sector or trade or  even individual has had it tougher than others – we’ve all had it tough in our own way, and hopefully most if not all of us will come through the other side in one piece, a little  bit wiser, a little bit warier, a little bit more considerate towards others. But will our trade ever return to what we knew, or is it going to be that awful phrase-of-the-moment, a “new normal”?

Most of us know there have been all sorts of supply issues over the last few months, from getting basic supplies, to arranging deliveries, and even getting clients to allow workers on site. On a daily basis, I hear tales of contractors having to make 2-day notice appointments to collect cement, of driving 50 miles and more to find a stockist with the right setts, of being told there’s a two-to-three week wait for a skip. While we may well muddle through for a few weeks, a few months, we can’t run a business on these terms for long. Something will have to change.

And on the supplier side, they’re not being deliberately obstructive. They have their own issues. India has been in total lockdown for a couple of months. There have been no shipments of paving or walling or dimensional stone during that period and stocks in Europe are getting low. Importers had built up stock levels over the winter in preparedness for this Spring season, and while they’ve not been drawn down as quickly as they would have been had the virus never emerged, they are gradually, week-by-week, bit-by-bit, crate-by-crate, being depleted….and they are not being replaced. They can’t be replaced – there are no exports from India, nor anywhere else.

flags in crates
How long will these stocks last?

I spoke with a few significant importers, the sorts of businesses that supply dozens of builders’ merchants, landscape suppliers, and hundreds of individual contractors. They tell of stock levels being gradually denuded, of looking into their yards and seeing empty spaces where crates should be stacked umpteen high, of lorries parked-up and idle. One major national supplier reckons they are down to less than 60% of the stock they would expect to hold at this time of year, while a somewhat more specialist supplier of European granite says their yard stocks are at 30% and dropping.

It will take time to recover. While it may be possible, if you have deep pockets, to get, say, a lorry-load of porcelain over from Italy in as little as three days, that assumes, firstly, that the manufacturer has stock available, and then that they are willing to sell it to any particular retailer or distributor…and at what cost? Europe may be only days away by road or rail, but the kilns of Northern Italy and those in Spain, both countries hit hard during this pandemic, have been cold for many weeks. And when they fire them up once again, all of Europe, as well as customers in other parts of the world, will be clamouring for their treasured output.

For stone originating in India, Vietnam and China, the overland route is impractical for all sorts of reasons. These exports rely on the sea routes. If we imagine the lockdowns were all lifted tomorrow, and further assumed there is stock at the harbour ready to ship when quarries have been furloughed for a couple of months, even the fastest transit will take 5 weeks to traverse the Indian Ocean, navigate the Suez Canal, and bobble through the Med…and again, that’s assuming the various exporters see the British and Irish markets as a priority. On a global scale, we take less than 0.5% of their output – we are a minor and inconsequential midge bite on the arse of global stone production. Don’t for a second think we have any real clout when their home markets will be ravenous for stone, and while the deep pockets of the Middle East and North America are also waving madly at them.

It could easily take 6 months, from the lifting of lockdown, for Asian stone stocks in our nations to recover, and in that period, we may well see what scant supply there is being regulated by price. How much of a premium would you pay to ensure you had, say, Kandla Grey flagstones to lay next week?

flags porcelain stocks
Healthy porcelain stocks in Italy last summer...but how much is left?

The European suppliers will probably get back to something approaching ‘normal’ in a couple of months, but we may well find that is overly optimistic. Portuguese granite should start to reappear reasonably quickly, with the porcelains not far behind. The Indian stone will take months, and, as India is becoming an increasingly important player in the supply of porcelain, we could well see price hikes for European stocks. The other nations of SE Asia will follow India’s lead, and China will, as they always seem to do, be back in action as though nothing had happened, in a similar time frame.

But whatever happens, whenever the various lockdowns are lifted, we have to accept that we will be looking at a tough year all around. The “New Normal” will probably take some getting used to…and it could well drag on for far longer than any of us envisage.