On Friday 24th March 2023, it will mark the three-year anniversary of the beginning of the first lockdown due to COVID-19 in the UK. Remember the pandemic?
In what now seems such a distorted and strange period of time, filled with fear, frustration, anger and conspiracy theories, the pandemic has left an indelible mark on the UK fenestration sector. Normality has returned in many ways, but there are things that have changed the sector for good. As we approach this milestone, I wanted to take a look back at the start of the pandemic, DGB coverage and how COVID has changed how we operate as a sector.
COVID-19: from China to lockdown
Although the virus originated in China, and the jury remains out on whether it was a terrible natural occurrence or something more sinister in a lab, the focus in this country was how the virus was disrupting supply chains.
In an article on March 3rd 2020, I wrote about how our sector needed to consider relocating production of products back to the UK. At the time, China was under a strict lockdown and much of its manufacturing capacity was shut down:
I was speaking to a number of heads of companies last week who were explaining to me what the situation was, not only for them, but for the wider industry. Some have healthy stocks of what they need, some do not and are already issuing warnings to customers about what to buy and how much they can buy. Some are lucky enough to have their Chinese factories back up and running, some are not, and some may not be that far away from a crisis point.
Most though agreed that economically we’re only at the start of this story, and the pinch is yet to be felt, but that it was also going to have a large damaging effect on the whole. Not great news for an industry that was finally looking forward to a 2020 without incident or shock or surprise.
Many of the conversations at the time were very much focused on short-term issues. Companies were running out of hardware and were struggling to find alternatives. There was uncertainty as to when factories would be back up and running and there was a growing sense of urgency. Suppliers were beginning to issue warnings to clients.
Yet at the time, I remember there was not as much focus on the global spread and the potential for lockdowns in other countries at the time. Perhaps it was the denial of the inevitable and ignorance being a blissful barrier to what I think we all knew was going to happen. It was a problem for China, no one else.
Three weeks later, we were locked down. Boris Johnson, fresh from a landslide election victory, was on our TV screens asking us to stay home, to protect the NHS and save lives:
At the time, DGB published two articles just after this speech. One that evening then another the day after:
In what was another sombre day in the UK, we watched on social media as the fenestration industry began shutting down. One after another, not long after the Prime Minister’s address, I watched as my social media timelines started to fill with companies declaring that they would close in order to comply with the new guidance and to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
It was quite a momentous thing to watch. As an industry we have faced tough times in the past, but nothing can compare to the scale and size of what we’re all being asked to do. It is going to cause damage to the economy, records are likely to be smashed in a negative sense. Its likely some companies may not be able to make it through the lockdown period. But as an industry, nearly all of us are doing the right thing in closing our doors until things out there improve.
I remember with clarity the unnerving feeling of watching the statement on TV. A landmark moment in our lives. One that will be studied in history in the decades to come, and we were living through it. The uncertainty and fear were palpable. Social media was blowing up and I remember being up very late that night conversing with industry connections across all platforms trying to digest what this all meant.
Of course, that first lockdown lasted a lot longer than three weeks, and it took until the rollout of the vaccine programme which began at the start of 2021 before we could feel optimistic about the future.
What we also could not have imagined was the insanity of the bounce-back in business following the end of the first lockdown in May 2020. The economy was in a self-induced recession, a record-breaking one, and conventional wisdom taught us that consumers would be conservative when it came to spending. How wrong we all were. The rush to spend holiday refunds, grants and saved cash during the lockdowns lead to unprecedented demand for home improvement products, and the fenestration sector was a beneficiary of that rush to spend.
Admittedly, it created a whole world of problems during the following 18 months, and I recall distinctly an industry under great strain, where mental health was battered, supply chains crumbled and many questioned whether the extra revenue was worth the personal sacrifice. Fast forward to today and the market is in a very different place, with perhaps some of us wishing for those ultra-busy days to return.
The pandemic changed how our industry worked. Unable to open offices and showrooms, communications with clients done online or over the phone, and digital channels being maxed out. In order to function, our industry underwent a decade worth of change in the space of just a few weeks. Arguably, change that needed to come to our industry, but sadly not under the circumstances we would have liked.
Zoom, Teams, Skype
How many of you wish you had shares in Zoom before the pandemic erupted? Video conferencing platforms exploded in popularity as companies up and down the fenestration supply chain sought ways to remain in contact with their clients. Working from home, Kitchen tables quickly became offices and kids popping up in the background during meetings was very much normal.
As you would expect, months of sitting in front of screens to talk to colleagues and clients began to drag on the motivations of people and many were itching to return to their cars and get back to in-person meetings.
Whilst that has returned to some degree, video calling has remained to a large degree in our sector. Mainly at the B2B level. I know that even though restrictions are long behind us, I am still using Zoom and Teams with others to hold meetings that don’t always need to be done in person.
For me, this remains a positive effect of the pandemic. It forced us to become more open-minded to differing methods of communication within our sector and ditch meetings for the sake of meetings. There are times when in-person meetings are needed, and that is fine, but for more menial updates or general conversation, being able to jump on Zoom and have that connection is fine too. I expect video calling to remain fully embedded in our sector now.
Perhaps the biggest hangover from the pandemic has been the price inflation that our industry, along with the rest of the country, has suffered with. Following the reopening of the country from the first lockdown, many supply chains, including ours, were woefully unprepared for the levels of spending that we saw. After predictions of slow spending and caution, it felt like the entire country wanted to change their windows and doors all at the same time!
As a result, thanks to huge amounts of money thrown at the economy to keep it afloat, inflation spiralled out of control and we now sell our windows and doors to the general public at a far higher amount than in March 2020. Inflation in itself has gone on to cause further problems, such as the cost of energy (pre-Ukraine war) which also fed into the general price inflation spiral.
We are still seeing the effects of this today, with suppliers beginning to replace temporary freight charges with energy surcharges. Although the pace of price increases has certainly slowed since the heady days of 2020 and 2021. There were periods during those years when price increases felt like they were coming on a weekly basis.
I have long argued that our industry has needed to raise its prices for homeowners for a long time. Our lazy method of selling on price before anything else has kept our prices to the public artificially low compared to others sectors and had certainly not risen with inflation prior to the pandemic. However, the process should have been a nice gradual one, not the rampant skywards trajectory that hit us all.
The reality is that prices won’t fall back from where they are now. Surcharges that are painted as temporary are being baked in and rebranded according to the circumstances at the time. This is not ideal against a difficult economic backdrop.
Tech bedded in
Although I would judge that there are parts of the sector that remain very archaic, the adoption of technology, forced through necessity during the pandemic, has been expedited. Prior to 2020, we had a lot of catching up to do when it came to other sectors. We had been reliable and apathetic to change and new ideas.
However, after being kept indoors and forced to find new ways to keep our businesses running, technology came to the rescue and through a Force Majeure made us embrace the advantages tech brings to the table.
Instant communication. Immersive and engaging marketing content. Faster pricing. Wider B2B conversations. Swift news publication. Technology brings our sector closer together and makes us more efficient. Software played a massive part in keeping our sector running during 2020 and 2021 and I have seen such great advances in adoption which has been heartening.
Supply chain fragility
The build-up in demand held back like a dam during the lockdown, and the subsequent flood which was unlocked when the public could spend again shone a light on the interconnectedness of our supply chain in the fenestration sector.
It’s not that we didn’t know that it was all connected, but the strains and pressures the fenestration supply chain had in trying to cope with surging demand certainly gave us all a closer insight into how fabricators, IGU suppliers, systems companies etc operated on a daily basis and how their operations served their own customers.
Post-pandemic, I believe that the supply chain crisis that we endured has not only educated us on the fragility of supply chains and the importance of them running smoothly but also taught us to reinforce them. At some point in time, we may go through the same supply chain pressures again. Hopefully not because of a pandemic! It is at that point that the lessons we have learned over the past couple of years will become useful and managing a delicate situation becomes less precarious next time round.
The last few years have certainly been hard in many ways. From coping with lockdowns and being restricted at home. To masks, rigorous health and safety precautions, supply chain crises and rampant price inflation. We have all been put through the wringer and we have worked in a period of our lives that I am confident in saying none of us wants to work through again.
But as they saying goes, tough times create tough people. Or something to that effect. I believe that we have learned more about ourselves than we realise. That we can be more innovative and creative than we think. That we can be more driven and determined than we thought. That our sector can grind its way through hard periods better than we give ourselves credit for.
We’re about to go through another rough period. We’re flirting with inflation, with consumer demand and confidence dropping and profitability becoming difficult. There is a new banking crisis looming in the rearview mirror just to add to the drama. We’re going to need that think skin and resilience to bring us through this next rocky chapter.
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