With a building world in upheaval, siding remains a steadfast player.
Up until 1903, most structures were sided with either wood, stone, or brick. Those materials had a good run, but there was change in the wind. In 1903, the first patents were filed for sheet-iron and steel clapboard siding. By the mid 1920s, Sears, Roebuck & Company started offering embossed steel siding, but it wasn’t until 1939 when Indiana machinist Francis Hoess patented a process of using a locking joint for aluminum siding. Along comes vinyl siding in the late 1950s, and the building industry was forever changed.
Since those turning points, the siding industry has had a rosy rise. But like all industries during these tumultuous times, the siding segment is taking a hit, and predicting segment trends is difficult, especially because no one knows with absolute certainty how the situation will unfold in the coming year. But while there is most certainly a temporary slowdown bubble, most manufacturers seem cautiously optimistic, even though it may take some time for builders and remodelers to get back up to full speed. “While there are many uncertainties right now, we’re hopeful that the impact on building materials may not be as severe as one might fear,” says Jack Delaney, vice president of sales for Boral Building Products. “During stay-at-home orders, many Americans have been making wish lists for the ways they will have professionals make improvements once that’s allowed in their areas. Siding replacement is a perfect way to give existing homes an instant facelift.”
Deb Lechner, vice president of marketing for Ply Gem Siding, also sees the potential for a strong outcome. “The first quarter of this year showed exciting, positive growth,” she explains. “With COVID-19, the speed of recovery is still unknown, and highly debated. Happily, many builders and remodelers have adapted quickly to virtual selling and social distancing guidelines. We’re obviously in unprecedented times, and while it is challenging to predict the future, we expect the coming year to show positive growth for the siding segment.”
“Our current forecast of demand for the 12 months of 2020 shows a decrease of 30 – 40% from initial annual projections in new single-family,” says Sebastian DeGregorio, business strategy manager for sales and marketing for Allura. “While it will take some time for builders to ramp up fully and for municipalities to work through the backlog of inspections and approvals, we see healthy activity for the remainder of 2020.”
Sean Gadd, chief commercial officer for James Hardie Building Products, shares similar projections as DeGregorio, but is a little more cautious about the speed of recovery. “There are a number of companies that are trying to predict what new housing starts will be and how the repair and remodel industry will react,” says Gadd. “We have seen ranges showing this year to be anywhere from -15% to -25%. While we cannot predict how long this will go for, or how big the impact will be, we expect a more L-shaped recovery; meaning that the economy and the building industry will come back slow and over a longer period of time.”
Still, there’s a factor that the siding industry has in its favor that not all other segments of the remodeling and building industry can take advantage of—siding is part of the building’s envelope, and thus is outside the home, potentially isolated from the homeowner. “A siding installation is much less invasive than a kitchen or bathroom remodel,” says Kevin Mickle, product manager of siding for ProVia. “Additionally, with 49 states having issued some form of shelter-in-place rules, people have been in their homes more than ever. They’ve completed their cleaning and organizing tasks and are now taking on outside projects that increase the curb appeal of their home.”
Home as sanctuary
In these times of uncertainty and insecurity, homeowners are more and more desiring a sense of sanctuary. They want their homes to feel like a place where they can let go of stress and be together with family, in spite of the world around them. And siding can help create that sense of sanctuary. “Now more than ever, home is everything,” says Steve Booz, vice president of marketing and product development for Royal Building Products. “It has become the place where we relax, socialize (virtually), work, teach, play, work out, and more. Homeowners are taking the time to gather information and inspiration to create the home they want for themselves and their families. We anticipate that this will continue to drive interest in DIY projects and interior design, as well as larger remodeling projects.”
Boral’s Delaney echoes Booz’s comments. “This crisis has reinforced our long-held ideals of ‘home as sanctuary’,” he says. “It’s our safe place, now more than ever. And we want that space to be in tip-top shape and aesthetically pleasing. As a result, I think we’ll continue to see this increased interest in home improvement hold steady for some time.”
By utilizing products that create mixed textures, unique profiles, and on-trend colors, contractors and remodelers can create that sense of sanctuary, a singular look that enables the homeowner to have his or her individual stamp on the home. “Certainly, the consumer is a believer in customization,” says Mike Pidlisecky, vice president of sales and marketing for Woodtone. “As challenging as that is for the building industry on a mass scale, homeowners continue to want to add their touch to the interior and exterior of homes.”
That doesn’t mean that trends are going too far afield. Popular trends such as the modern farmhouse look will continue to be popular, especially when combined with contemporary twists.
“Siding and trim play a crucial role in achieving the simplicity and clean lines that are the hallmark of modern farmhouse design,” says LP Building Solutions’ R&R Territory Sales Manager–West, Clint Hulsing. “In particular, we’ve seen increased demand in smooth siding products on the modern farmhouse design because it puts a contemporary spin on the classic design.”
Boral’s Delaney shares the belief that it’s a balance of the traditional and the unique. “Authenticity has also been in demand for the past few years, and we think that desire will only get stronger as Americans look to their homes as a sanctuary,” he says. “The draw of tradition, of the tried-and-true, is likely to continue as homeowners look for any sense of normalcy in these times.” Still, in the midst of the search for uniqueness, some things remain constant. Low maintenance has been a big driver in the siding segment and will remain so, as will the desire for siding products that replicate a natural look. And of course, the labor shortage— made all the more challenging right now—will remain a big influencer. “I believe the trends driving product development remain similar to those before the pandemic occurred,” says Mike Maddern, director of marketing and sales for Arcitell, “namely products that are easier to install and address the continued challenge of construction labor shortages. The pandemic has only exacerbated this existing issue and has removed already strained resources from the available labor pool.”
Performance driving product choice
When it comes to purchasing decisions, much of what builders and contractors are looking for are the same today as they have been in years past.
But increasingly, builders’ primary product choice is being driven by performance and by ease and speed of installation, thus reducing labor costs.
“Builders are focused on products that will save time, improve building-efficiency and fortify their position in the market—ultimately enabling them to sell more homes, faster, and more profitably,” says Sean Gadd, chief commercial officer for James Hardie Building Products. “With the sheer scale of choices builders face, it’s imperative that products deliver strong value and help make the process simple.”
Says Boral’s Delaney, “Builders are looking for value. They want products that will improve a job’s appearance and increase its perceived value by increasing price more than cost. This includes products that deliver high performance and quality to prevent call-backs. In addition, due to the ongoing labor shortage (and now likely restrictions on the number of workers on the jobsite in some areas), builders appreciate products that are easy to install.”
Equally important, though, is the ability for the contractor to find everything they need through one single source who is both knowledgeable and product-savvy. “Given the current conditions in the marketplace, guaranteed supply and good service is extremely important,” says James Hardie’s Gadd. “The driving attitude is the desire to single-source materials and a willingness to do business with a partner,” explains Allura’s DeGregorio. “Customers would much rather buy a bundle of materials from the person they feel understands what they are trying to accomplish as a business, and who is willing to help support them achieve those goals.”
Royal’s Steve Booz agrees. “Companies that can provide a variety of great siding options, as well as an array of attractive trim and moulding packages, have an advantage in offering a ‘one stop shop’ for builders.”
So, as an LBM distributor, how do you meet those needs? According to the manufacturers, it’s by getting “in the head” of your customer, thinking about what they want, and then positioning yourself to provide it. As Arcitell’s Mike Maddern explains, “Train your entire organization to be more solutions-oriented when approaching customer-facing roles and responsibilities and begin each engagement by asking ‘what problem am I solving for this customer?’”
“Do anything and everything to increase your product knowledge,” says Boral’s Delaney. “Make an effort to know more about products—yours and your competitors’—than your customers do. This will allow you to not just sell to your customers, but to help them find the right materials for every project and every challenge. This, in turn, will make you more valuable to them as a supplier. Lean on your manufacturers for help with this.”
Remember, however, that no LBM dealer can be an expert on everything. But as LP’s Clint Hulsing points out, it’s important to anticipate rather than react. “As a dealer, it’s impossible (and unrealistic) to know the details of each product available,” he explains. “However, what dealers can do is try to best anticipate customer and contractor needs by offering products that address some of the top industry demands like quality and efficiency. Professionals want durable products they can trust that can save them time and resources on the jobsite, potentially impacting their bottom line. Offer solutions to proactively address their needs.”
Online training, virtual bidding
If there’s a good outcome from the current health crisis, it comes in the form of online and virtual training programs. More than ever, manufacturers are offering a wide array of resources that LBM distributors, builders, and contractors can take advantage of to increase their knowledge base.
For example, James Hardie recently launched “Field Safety Training,” a program designed to provide employees, customers, and business partners with an overview of COVID-19 and the actions that should be taken to support safe business practices across every touch point. In addition, the company has curated an Affiliate Webinar Series for customers and members of its Contractor Alliance Program (CAP) to educate and inform, with topics that include jobsite safety, maximizing leads and virtual sales, and how to increase business visibility online.
LP has moved its SmartSide training events online, allowing for a virtual experience that delivers vital product information. Likewise, Allura has created a series of short videos on how to sell its products based on the value to the builder. “We created several videos about product installation best-practices, tips, and general product storage and handling,” explains Allura’s DeGregorio. “This next year we will also be delivering live virtual installation training. Installers can sign-up for a session, take the in-class training virtually, and then at a later date, join a monthly in-person hands-on training with one of Allura’s installation professionals.”
Likewise, Boral has moved its training and education programs online, adapting to each state’s individual needs. “Boral Building Products has quickly adjusted to offering training sessions virtually, from educational product knowledge workshops to live, interactive installation demonstrations,” says Boral’s Delaney. “We’re making every effort to ensure dealers and builders can continue to operate when and where allowed. Once face-to-face meetings are back on the docket, we’ll be back on the road with our training trailers, visiting dealer locations and jobsites for live product demonstrations and installation training.”
To meet the needs of a world where customers may be reluctant to allow contractors to enter their homes, Royal has partnered with One Click Contractor to transform the way its products are sold. With the new system, contractors can run their entire sales process—from measuring to payment—without setting foot in a customer’s home. “By making the transition from paper to digital,” says Royal’s Booz, “contractors can easily deliver an accurate, professional, and customized sales process with all of the estimates, contracts, and presentations that would typically happen at the customer’s kitchen table.”
When these changes are all looked at together, it is apparent that the siding industry as a whole is ready, willing and able to adapt to new forms for business. As homeowners focus more and more on the value of their homes, the perceived value of siding is poised to do nothing but rise, and LBM distributors need to be ready to help customers understand how to best meet these new needs. As Steve Booz reminds us, “Royal Building Products is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and, having weathered several recessions and downturns in our history, we continue to remain optimistic about the home building industry despite the upheavals facing us with the current health crisis. We are continuing to announce new products this year and have no plans to stop innovating. We remain optimistic about the growth of siding this year.”
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 19 years.