As I sit down to write this blog, the UK has entered a fourth week in lockdown with little prospect of measures being relaxed until Mid-May. It seems like an opportune time to reflect on what the bathroom industry has learnt about itself in the age of COVID19, as well as to speculate about what this strange episode’s legacies could be for the longer term.
First, and obviously, the impact on demand for new bathrooms has been enormous. In the first couple of months of the year manufacturers were reporting positive sales figures, suggesting our hunch about a ‘Boris bounce’ was well founded. Even as the scale of the looming pandemic was becoming clearer sales seemed to hold up. Only when social distancing restrictions were implemented did order levels take a tumble. That stands to reason, as all retailers and showrooms were compelled to shut their doors.
However, the dip in bathroom sales is much worse than it needs to be. The government has employed a simple message of “stay at home to save lives” which has been incredibly effective. The success of this minimalist messaging has come at the expense of the government’s more nuanced advice to the construction industry. BEIS say all new build, refurbishment and maintenance work can continue if contractors adhere to Public Health England guidelines. Yet too many sites are closed. Sales in the trade channel should be holding up, but Government’s sectoral advice is a whisper compared to the megaphone guidance aimed at the public-at-large.
Second, and this is hollow consolation, is that the bathroom industry is not alone. Almost every section of the economy (save FMCG) has suffered a demand cliff-edge. Forecasters are saying a deep recession is inevitable. In terms of policy response, a new Keynesian political consensus seems to be emerging with construction regarded by the Johnson government as economic driver. Our sector needs to be ready for any post-COVID construction stimulus packages.
Thirdly, to be able to respond to an uplift in demand after the lockdown manufacturers will need cash. One regrettable practice in some merchants and distributors has been unilaterally deferring payments or claiming rebates, choking cash. This undermines the good practice, where customers in difficulty have picked up the phone, entered a dialogue with suppliers and found a way forward together. I believe all companies’ conduct now will be remembered for a long time.
Fourth, the bathroom industry has adapted to lockdown and adapted well. In factories and warehouses, social distancing measures have been introduced maintaining supply. Business has continued, just using more of the tools the web has to offer. COVID19 may also be accelerating changes in supply chains and routes to market. Some adaptations, to a lesser or greater extent, will last.
Finally, our sector has done its bit for the national effort. The sector has continued to supply bathroom products needed for the NHS to operate safely, including kitting out the Nightingale Hospitals. Production lines and 3D printers have been repurposed to produce PPE. Whatever comes next for sector, that positive response to an unprecedented situation will be one of the most potent legacy of this time.