Rationing building materials and DIY products?

Is plaster the new toilet roll? Demand for building materials and DIY products in lockdown stretches UK supplies and risks product restrictions.

Toilet roll, flour, and wall plaster? What do these items all have in common? All have seen a buying surge by the public that’s put huge pressure on manufacturers and suppliers to keep up with demand.

The panic buying of toilet paper at the start of the coronavirus pandemic gave way to a rush on baking ingredients and a flour shortage during lockdown and now a DIY binge that’s stretching UK supplies of cement, plaster, fence panels, paint and power tools, all of which are in huge demand right now as DIY shops report a surge in sales up 250% on last year.

With more than 9 million Britons furloughed during the three months of lockdown, many have turned to much delayed DIY projects to fill their days and have diverted funds they’d otherwise have spent on foreign holidays, meals out, trips to the pub or luxury fashion into home improvements with DIY projects, ranging from mending fences to laying patios, skimming walls, painting and decorating all proving popular.   

Last week Kingfisher, which owns the B&Q and Screwfix chains, both deemed essential businesses and allowed to remain open throughout the coronavirus lockdown, said they were hiring up to 2,000 temporary workers after online sales soared by more than 200% in April and May.

The online DIY marketplace ManoMano said that over the last three months sales of power tools had been nearly 250% higher than in 2019 and demand for plumbing and electrical items had more than doubled.

Homebase said its timber sales were also double last year’s and reported strong demand for insulation, loft ladders and loft boards as people sought to create a home office or additional storage during lockdown.

“I wouldn’t quite say plaster is the toilet roll of the building materials industry, but it’s probably not far off,” said John Newcomb, chief executive of the Builders Merchants Federation (BMF). “The availability issues are either in builders’ merchants or DIY stores and there has been a big shortage of plaster as well as issues around bagged cement – it’s the products purchased by consumers and tradesmen, so it’s those who buy smaller quantities who are worst affected.”

“We are also seeing excessive demand for external materials like fence posts and panels, exterior paint and garden sleepers,” said Newcomb. “There is this extreme demand from consumers and now, as tradesmen start to return to work, they’re adding to that.”

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 that occurred earlier this year created by the lockdown baking craze.

Back in March supermarkets began rationing certain items amid the initial coronavirus panic and basic items such as toilet paper, pasta, wipes and soap were all restricted as consumers emptied shelves across the country. So, will we see something similar in the DIY world? It’s unlikely that we’ll see any of the same restrictions applied to building materials and DIY items as much of the initial panic around the coronavirus has settled down somewhat and as building materials are not considered essential items in the same way as groceries and other supermarket essentials. 

The work of housebuilders and major contractors has mostly avoided disruption, said Newcomb, who added that plaster supplies and other building materials were being prioritised for essential projects, particularly within the NHS. The most likely outcome is that product supply will continue to fall short of demand in the short-medium term and that we’ll see an increase in the use of new and different brands to the mainstream construction products until supply levels normalise towards the end of the summer, perhaps late August or early September 2020.

Plaster-makers such as Adaptavate and versatile, easy-to-use plaster products like Breathaplasta have performed exceptionally well during the coronavirus lockdown as customers found empty shelves at retail outlets and sought alternative plasters and other building materials online. Adaptavate expect to continue to supply their existing merchant network without issue in the months to come and pick up several new customers along the way as more people use the current plaster shortage as an opportunity to try out innovative new plaster products such as Breathaplasta. 

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