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The long and the shortage of it

Planning without action is futile, action without planning is fatal

How typically British we all are. At the first hint of a lack of supply of something – bricks, blocks, bread or bacon, we head for the tills to stock up.

On countless Budget-day evenings after a petrol duty rise has been announced, garage forecourts are chock-full of normally sensible human beings all trying to squeeze an extra thimbleful of fuel into their tanks before the price rise.

Or, remember the fuel blockades of 2000, when the supermarkets were running short of supplies, mainly because people were panic buying? I remember one lady getting really stroppy when a mild-mannered store manager tried to dissuade her from buying 20 loaves of finest Mothers’ Pride.

According to many of the heavy side manufacturers I’ve been speaking to, the situation with brick and block supplies is not actually that dissimilar.

At the first hint of a shortage, our first instinct is to order in whatever we think we might need, regardless of whether we actually do need it that day, or the event the following week.

The supply shortage of heavyside building materials – some anyway – isn’t being helped by builders who have got used to having plenty of stock and expecting their merchants to have plenty of stock ready and waiting for when they might need it.

Waiting for the upturn has seemed at times over the past 18 months or so a bit like waiting for Godot – it was promised and promised but never seemed to arrive. And then, bam, it did.

I’ve written elsewhere on here about why it might be that this has happened now and in the way it has, but the simple fact is that demand for building materials has outpaced supply.

I think it was always probably going to be like this. I mean one of those huge brick kilns at Ibstock isn’t like a kettle; you can’t just flick a switch and watch it heat up. Manufacturers have had to carefully balance energy costs, raw material costs, transport and personnel costs with the precariousness of demand over the last few years. Get it too far wrong one way and they’d be on their way out of business, get it wrong too far the other way and they run the risk of alienating customers who turn tail and run to competitors who can supply.

Obviously, pretty much all of the manufacturers are in the same boat, so it’s not as though there’s one savvy chap out there who’s scooping up all the business from the others. However, it’s clear from talking to merchants that they are trying to be as savvy as possible, getting supply where they can from whichever supplier they can.

Many of them have fallen back on the old adage that, in a crisis, it’s not what you know but who you know that counts and those with solid, committed relationships with suppliers – whether through buying groups or otherwise – are the ones getting what supplies there are.

One manufacturer told me that he has pulled some of his reps off the road in terms of pure selling; instead they are heading off to the building sites to ask the building customers exactly what products they require and when they need them by, in order to better manage the supply situation.

The trouble is, builders – and merchants to be fair – have been used to having stock available in depth and breadth whenever they want it. Now things are picking up, that’s not going to be the case and the industry has to get used to it.

But then if all builders had the planning abilities and foresight to know exactly what they needed for which job, and the precise day and time they needed it, there’d probably not be much room left for the builders merchant.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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