‘The most bizarre year ever’

Roman’s managing director David Osborne assesses the impact of Covid-19 and how it, and factors such as Brexit, will shape the bathroom industry going forward


It’s fair to say 2020 is probably the most bizarre year any of us will experience in our lifetime. What started out as an isolated problem in Wuhan, quickly became a problem for the whole of China and our initial thoughts here in the UK were that it would only affect businesses that import from China.

Quite rapidly the situation snowballed and became a problem for the whole world and we then found ourselves in lockdown. During March, at Roman, we were finding sales holding up well – especially on international hotel projects and house building. We were planning on continuing to manufacture throughout as the pipeline was still there – then suddenly nearly all of our customers were shut.

We had a three-week period with a skeleton team and then we commenced manufacturing again during late April. May built up nicely and by the second week of June were back at recognisable volumes and since that time we have had 100% of our operations staff back in full-time work and the rest of the business has followed.

We are now seeing strong demand in all the key channels that we operate in. Retail was one of our primary concerns, but having spoken to a large number of retailers over the past few weeks, the new world of appointment-based showroom sales has worked effectively and seems to focus the mind – and more importantly – the purchase.

House building has quickly recovered to a good level and the project and international market now seems busier than before.

While there is a lot of negativity in the mainstream media, which I am trying very hard to avoid, we certainly feel there are reasons for us all to be optimistic.

If we look at previous recessions, they had significant levels of long-term unemployment, which reduces activity in the economy, but more importantly significantly reduces consumer spending power.

During this pandemic, the government furlough scheme has been very clearly targeted on maintaining employment for as long as is possible – but perhaps more important economically, it has maintained incomes to a very large degree. If you also factor in how easy it has been to defer mortgage payments, then we are looking at a very different picture on consumer spending.

Clearly, there will be a spike in unemployment when the furlough scheme ends, but the optimistic view is that it will not be as severe as predicted and in fact, as normality returns, the vast majority of consumers have relatively undiminished spending power.

If we focus on the bathroom market, then the prolonged time that people have spent at home should benefit our industry enormously, as they have planned projects and upgrades – and the majority seem to be forgoing holidays, which adds even more to the bathroom industry coffers.

We will understand an awful lot more during the autumn and as the furlough scheme unravels. If we are seeing a bounce in retail, then of course some of it is down to previously booked orders now being released, but we do get a feel for genuine ongoing demand.

Likewise in house building, while the first few weeks of building was focused on completing part-built houses, the major builders are talking positively about their ongoing volumes and pipelines over sustained periods. We should not lose sight of the fact that we still have a major housing shortage – and the country needs higher volumes of new house building for many years to come. A point that certainly does not seem lost on the Government.

We do sense that a few other things are going on. We have been at the heart of the Made in Britain organisation for some years and we fundamentally believe in this ethos, for us as a business and for the economy as a whole.

Especially in light of Brexit, Britain needs to understand the importance of domestic manufacturing more than ever. Some larger groups are already examining supply chains from the angle of de-risking for the future. We are seeing an abnormally high number of accounts coming on board and some older accounts re-engaging positively.

The economy needs to fundamentally assess low-cost sourcing against the value of local manufacture and we see this prompting a major shift.

There are a number of initiatives in discussion to evolve purchasing habits. The lifetime cost of the purchase is what is being focused upon, rather than the one-off lowest cost. This argument then develops into one of sustainability, carbon foot printing and disposal of the lowest cost options.

Made in Britain is a key factor in every aspect.

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