Rapid growth of the decking segment promises profits for fasteners.
When you think of a deck fastener, what comes to mind? Odds are, it’s probably a screw. While nails are still a staple of the building industry, it’s the screw that’s most commonly now used in deck construction. While screws have been around since the first century B.C., it wasn’t until the late 18th century that screws became commonplace when two English brothers—Job and William Wyatt—patented the first screw-making machine. And when Cullen Whipple created the pointed screw in 1859, he could not have envisioned how his invention would go on to change the face of construction more than a century later.
Today, choices abound for deck fasteners. Though nails remain an option, new screw designs, clips for hidden fastening, and other innovations dominate the market. And it’s a market that has the potential to be a profitable one for LBM dealers despite current market upheavals.
At the beginning of 2020, outdoor living spaces were already one of the hottest-growing home improvement segments. Homeowners were already looking for ways to better capitalize on their home’s outdoor living space, but COVID-19 turned up the heat on that demand. “The interest in both home improvements and outdoor living spaces has increased dramatically as a result of shelter-in-place and other quarantining policies and practices,” says Robert Shirley, Simpson Strong-Tie product marketing manager for fastening systems.
Still, no one was prepared for the escalation in demand that the pandemic brought on, and manufacturers had to scramble to meet demand. “Our distributors and dealers were already experiencing record demand for our products, both standard threaded fasteners and hidden deck fasteners,” explains Phil Lail, president of Sure Drive USA. “While families were quarantined at home and not taking vacations, many were updating or remodeling their outdoor living spaces. As the price and availability of pressure treated lumber escalated, our composite decking partners were working overtime to keep up with demand for their products, thus increasing the demand for our hidden deck fasteners. In my 35-plus year history in this business, I have never seen customers wanting product so badly that they were willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in airfreight and expedited freight.”
Uli Walther, president of U2 Fasteners, agrees. “The remodeling industry was very strong during COVID-19,” he says. “Most people took their summer travel money and put it into updating their homes. There were lots of manufacturers who were not prepared for the upsurge in materials. The demand for deck fasteners was in full force and we were one of the lucky ones who had enough inventory to meet the needs.”
To make things even more chaotic, LBM distributors and their customers were never sure from one day to the next what the working environment would bring. Will stores be allowed to open? Will builders and contractors be deemed essential? It was a fluid situation that was, to say the least, challenging. “Decking contractors were forced to work in a start-stop mode, as states or regions focused on essential vs. non-essential construction,” says Dani Zizak, chief marketing officer of National Nail (the manufacturer of CAMO deck fasteners and tools). But as states have become more adept in dealing with the pandemic, demand for decking-related products continues to soar. Home design and renovation hub Houzz reported last summer a 178% year-over-year jump in searches for professionals to work on deck, patio, and porch projects. And according to a recent market growth report from Technavio, the decking market size has the potential to grow by $4.89 billion from 2020 to 2024.
These forecasts, combined with homeowners’ continued desire to improve their outdoor living spaces, bodes well for market growth. “[COVID-19] has certainly increased interest and demand quite extensively,” explains Melanie Bisson, director of LBM sales for Grabber Construction Products. “We have seen many studies and witnessed in our own branches the surge in home renovation projects, particularly outdoor, due to the COVID lockdowns and people having more time to focus on home improvements… Gauging by record new home sales and analyst reports, we anticipate residential growth to continue outpacing expectations from pre-COVID forecasts, especially without any major supply chain disruptions.”
Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley echoes Bisson’s optimism. As he explains, “We expect the nation and world to hopefully emerge from the restrictions placed upon us by the virus, but we think that emergence will be slow, providing continued industry growth as DIY customers work on home improvements and other projects. There is also the anticipation of a ramp-up in pro builder and construction activity this year, and as a result, one can expect increases in the number of larger-scale projects.”
Still, optimism is tinged with wariness. Fluctuations in how the pandemic continues to unfold could somewhat dampen the market as the year progresses. “Based on conversations with our customer base, many are forecasting another very busy first and second quarter,” says Lail. “We have seen record sales with our annual ‘Winter Buy’ specials that help support this optimism in the marketplace. If the country can get COVID-19 under control, we think business could remain strong but not at record levels as they are now. We are forecasting a slower second half of the year in our 2021 budget attributed to what we call the possible ‘COVID bubble break.’”
The speed of pandemic response across the country, points out Jacek Romanski, channel marketing director for ITW-GRK Fasteners, can also impact the sustainability of market growth. “That is a tricky question, as the market is still so volatile,” he says. “It will really depend on how quickly, or slowly, the economy will open. If businesses continue to stay locked down or limited in capacity, homeowners will more likely continue to invest in refurbishing and extending their living spaces instead of spending money on vacations or dining out.”
Sleek looks, quick methods spur prices
Not surprisingly, the continued desire to transform outdoor spaces into extensions of indoor living areas will be a major driving trend for the coming twelve months. “COVID-19 has created a unique situation where, despite a faltering economy, home values have continued to rise alongside record highs in home purchases,” says Shaun Jennings, marketing communications manager for FastenMaster. “This, combined with a rise in time spent at home, has pushed homeowners to invest more in their properties, especially in shared spaces like back yards.”
GRK Fasteners’ Romanski agrees. “We are continuing to see trends in extending the living space to the outdoors due to the pandemic keeping homeowners from going to restaurants and bars,” he says. “This is driving homeowners to add on deck extensions and patios or at the very least refurbish them to make them more modern.” And as with indoor living areas, clients want those new outdoor living spaces to be just as clean and refined. “Just like in the home, homeowners prefer not to see exposed fasteners,” Romanski adds. “So as trends in extending outdoor living spaces continue, contractors often prefer to appease their clients and use hidden fastening systems to camouflage heads or eliminate the marks made by the screw or nail.”
But with all this increased demand to expand outdoor living space, how will contractors keep up? Manufacturers agree that products—both fasteners and tools—which speed installation so contractors can quickly move from project to project will be another dominant trend, especially in light of the continuing labor shortage. “As a result of this phenomenal growth,” explains Sure Drive’s Lail, “we have seen a demand for faster installation methods of hidden deck fasteners.”
Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley also sees the need for speed as a growing trend. As he points out,“Autofeed screw-driving systems that are cordless, lightweight, and powerful will continue to gain attention as a way to reduce user fatigue and make the contractor’s job safer, easier, faster, and more efficient.”
A third factor that will influence both contractor and consumer demand is the change in nature of available deck building products themselves. The widely reported shortage of pressure-treated pine and softwood framing lumber has more builders turning to non-wood deck framing materials. As CAMO’s Dani Zizak explains, “Throughout the pandemic, the industry experienced supply channel disruptions, such as the softwood shortage and spike in pricing. Deck builders started turning to metal framing.”
Carrie Smith, senior category manager for BlueLinx, also sees the growth of alternative framing materials as a trend on the rise. She adds, “We are seeing a trend of more fasteners adjusting to alternative framing materials such as steel making fasteners specifically for alternative sub-structures.”
Embrace the ‘new normal’
With ever-increasing demand for materials, continued disruptions in supply, and a working environment that looks to remain in a pandemic flux, it can seem a daunting challenge for the LBM distributor to remain successful. But manufacturers say that, with proper preparation, dealers can do more than merely weather the storm; by embracing the “new normal” of the pos
As well, LBM distributors need to be as educated as possible about their products so that they are prepared to provide solutions to their customers. “Continuing to be educated in a breadth of product offerings and new trends is of utmost importance in meeting customer needs,” points out Grabber Construction Products’ Bisson. “When a contractor visits an LBM dealer with new products on display and can quickly deliver helpful information, it goes a long way in ensuring customer loyalty because it demonstrates a dedication to innovation and continued improvement.”
Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley echoes Bisson’s recommendation. “Simpson Strong-Tie has always relied on LBM dealer partners for front-line education, ensuring that customers know how premium deck screws are designed with features and benefits beyond what generic fasteners offer,” he says. “Dealers are key in communicating and providing the longer-lasting, more efficient, secure solutions that protect contractor and homeowner investments in decks and their outdoor-living areas.”
Manufacturers also point out the importance of LBM distributors becoming masters of cross marketing. It’s not sufficient, they say, to merely have fasteners displayed in the fastener aisle. By cross-merchandising fasteners with tools and decking material, LBM dealers will help a contractor improve their margins and quickly move from one job to the next.
“We have seen some LBM dealers add second points of merchandising to help meet the needs of their customers,” says Romanski. “While they may have their fasteners in line in one part of their store, LBM dealers with a strong decking focus have added rolling racks of their top-selling decking fasteners at check out. This allows their pro customer to grab and go, and it often reminds them to make sure they have the right fasteners for their job.”
Hand in hand with cross-merchandising is, of course, having a wide selection of fastener choices, and manufacturers stress the importance of being able to provide options to both the pro customer and the homeowner. “Selection is paramount to meeting the needs of our deck building customers,” says Sure Drive’s Lail. “Homeowners want options as they relate to aesthetics as well as installed price. Several dealers I know personally carry an adequate number of installation options… but they’re also open to special orders for what it takes to land the project.”
FastenMaster’s Shaun Jennings adds, “Decking products change and innovate rapidly in this space. Dealers who can offer the latest solutions through upgraded decking displays and additional employee education will benefit from a customer base looking to touch and feel the latest our industry has to offer.”
Virtual environments, real knowledge
It’s a reality of the COVID-19 world that in-person training isn’t returning to normal levels any time soon. Due to social distancing and state-mandated limits on in-person gatherings, it will be some time before education and training return to their pre-COVID norms. That’s no reason, however, to let training slip, and it’s why LBM dealers are relying on manufacturers for innovative ways to stay up on product education. As BlueLinx’s Carrie Smith explains, “Our suppliers have been very supportive and creative in bringing us virtual learning opportunities. Microsoft Teams has been a great tool for us internally, and our entire salesforce has had an opportunity to listen through multiple product trainings that they can take to their customers.”
In the case of Simpson Strong-Tie, it is developing a training program that provides in-depth instruction on how to assemble, maintain and operate Quik Drive Auto-Feed Screw-Driving Systems. “The full training course also explains how these systems save time and money,” says Shirley, “and they provide a much-needed break to installers with ergonomically advantageous ‘stand-up driving’ that reduces fatigue and back and knee strain.”
For Sure Drive, it is continuing its regular Zoom meetings and online training, but it also still offers a robust in-person training curricula while following health requirements that include social distancing and mask requirements. “Our sales team has regular meetings with our customers, but many are not willing to see us in person currently,” says Sure Drive’s Phil Lail. “Our sales staff that calls on our lumberyard customers is still doing training but on a much more limited basis, and in-person visits require masks and social distancing.”
Grabber is in the process of establishing a virtual selling course. “This will be beneficial for not only our salespeople in the wake of a move to a more permanent remote workforce brought on by COVID-19,” explains Grabber’s Bisson, “but for dealers and contractors as well. Navigating building relationships online will be critical to everyone’s success this year.”
And for GRK, it has developed a series of eLearning videos that provide virtual contactless training. “Prior to the pandemic, our sales team was regularly at LBM dealers training personnel on all of our premium lines of fastening products,” says GRK’s Romanski. “From short product demonstrations to longer in-depth product knowledge sessions, we now provide virtual training to our LBM dealer customers on our bestselling product lines they can view at their leisure.”
So what’s the LBM dealer to do? These insights from industry experts all seem to point to a common theme— embrace today, and plan for tomorrow. By staying atop industry trends, stocking product that fits those trends, and never letting up on employee training, you’ll have the best plan for what could be a quite profitable year. It’s a sense of guarded optimism that is perhaps best summed up by BlueLinx’s Carrie Smith: “We are very much looking forward to a great 2021.”
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 20 years.