Just in case you haven’t noticed, it’s busy. Like, really busy. Ever since the end of the first lockdown in May 2020 our sector has been running at 110% without a single break. It’s been relentless. The industry is tired and the supply chain is creaking badly. In some places, it’s starting to crumble under the weight of demand.

We know the reasons why we’re in the position we’re in. Super-high demand from the public driven by a new appreciation for our homes and the inability to spend disposable income in the usual places. That situation doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

There are now well-documented supply chain pressures in the composite door sector, with some significant commercial decisions being made. We have to consider what the next 6-9 months may have in store, and how we can prepare for that as an industry.

Relentless demand

The original train of thought was that come September of this year when support schemes like furlough come to an end, it may herald the beginning of the end of this period of exceptional demand in the home improvement sector. I’m now coming around to the idea of a different theory. That being, the pandemic may have permanently shifted the attitude of Brits towards their homes. After spending most of the year indoors, making the most of the space they live in, we have all come to value our four walls and roof significantly more than we used to. And if we value it more, we look after it more, which means home improvement works to keep our havens as nice and safe as possible.

If the latter of those two scenarios is the reality, then we face not just a few more months of this relentless demand, but maybe years. I can already hear the conflicted reactions to that theory. Giddiness at the prospect of a seemingly endless supply of business, coupled with the dread on figuring out how to cope with it all.

That fact of the matter is this. Right now, given the size of the sector versus the weight of demand out there, we’re overselling. Right now the industry in general in the UK was not built to cope with this amount of business. That is why you are seeing installer lead times for some stretch all the way to September. Certain products from suppliers are taking 16 weeks. It never used to be like this. Installers would be working on a 4-6 week schedule and suppliers would be delivering most things in 2-4 weeks. That was considered the norm. Those days now seem long gone, and the lead times which seem long to us now are likely to lengthen even more as demand shows no signs of letting up. I genuinely see a scenario where a great deal of the installer community is working on 16-20 week lead times widely. Will the public stomach that kind of wait after being used to having doors installed on a 3/4 week turnaround?

Come suppliers are doing better than others when it comes to securing supply. Although even the most prepared out there will admit to some straining of even their best-laid plans. But we’re dealing with an unprecedented moment. A moment that may become the norm. In which case, our industry needs to very quickly find a way to scale up and become a lot bigger and fast, because we cannot entertain the idea that lead times will just extend permanently for months or even years on end. Would you wait 9 months or even longer for a new door or windows?

Scale up, but how?

Personally, I am now of the opinion that this may well be our new status quo. Where the public has fallen back in love with their homes so much so that there has been a permanent shift in buying habits that prioritise the home over most other things. If this is the case, our industry, from top to bottom, is going to need to find ways to cope with this lift in extra business, else risk the supply chain becoming further crippled and disjointed.

From the conversations I have had this week, it’s becoming clear that more and more of us think this level of demand is now here to stay. Its also clear that many of us realise that we need to scale up our operations from top to bottom to be able to cope far better than we are now. And let’s be clear, we’re not coping all that well. We have bobbed along steadily for the last 10-15 years with the sector being a certain size, doing a certain amount of business. It’s time to think bigger. A lot bigger.

All companies across the entire supply chain need more of everything. More staff, more product, more space. We need more people in sales and customer service. We need more production capacity. We need more physical space to store product. Fabricators are reporting being at full capacity and running out of room to store finished frames. Installers need more staff to process orders, for sales leads, for surveys.

Right now, we’re in short supply of all kinds of products, and with glass plants shutting down in the next few weeks for months due to planned maintenance, the pressure on glass supply is going to get worse. We know of the problems when it comes to steel, and PVC resin prices have been shooting up too.

By scaling up, by increasing the size of the industry we would be able to reduce pressure on the supply chain, introduce extra capacity and begin to ease some of the pressures. For installers, more fitting crews and more staff at admin and processing levels would ease the strain on many SME installers. The problem though is that building more factory space takes years, not weeks or months. We don’t have an abundance of installers ready to hire on mass. We cannot fabricate additional product and material out of thin air. Everything we need to be able scale up is not readily available.

So how do we do it? Efficiency and planning are going to be of paramount importance over the next few months. And that counts for all companies in the supply chain. Installers have to plan well ahead their fitting schedules and place orders with suppliers with as much time as possible to allow manufacturers to plan well ahead. Fabricators should be looking to secure extra stock of pretty much everything at every given moment. You never know when another crisis is going to put further strain on the supply chain, so hedge against it and stock up as much as you can. That goes for systems companies too. Buy in, stock up and pack it to the rafters. There is no doubt it will all go, so buy in confidence. All businesses need to become more efficient in each and every process. Time is the most valuable commodity right now, so any extra time freed up to tackle something else is about as precious it can be at the moment. Hire more people. Take the strain off the workforce. Your workers are your lifeblood and they need supporting. The less stressed they feel the better their quality of work.

One final note. You may start to hear about the Suez Canal a lot more from suppliers in the next week or so. The canal is now unblocked and ships are freely moving again. However, shipping experts are explaining that the effects of the delay won’t be felt until three or four weeks time.

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