Although the official lockdown did not begin until late in March, the virus was sufficiently an issue in the UK earlier in the month for it to form the centrepiece of the government’s budget statement.
UK builders merchants’ sales were already slowing at the start of the year, falling by -2.6% in January 2020 compared with January 2019, and by -1.3% in February 2020 compared with February 2019.
Social distancing and lockdown measures introduced during March led to the largest decline of the quarter with sales down by -15.1% on March 2019. March sales were also down by -3.5% on February 2020.
Figures for Q1 2020 compared with Q1 2019 show a decline of -6.7% in total sales.
Comparing the first quarter performance of different product categories with Q1 2019, Tools ( down 12.7%) and Timber & Joinery Products (-11.1%) reported the biggest falls, with Plumbing, Heating & Electrical down 7.4%, Heavy Building Materials down 6.5%, Decorating down 5.1% and Kitchens & Bathrooms down 4.1%.
The one outstanding performance in Q1 2020 was in Workwear and Safetywear, which saw sales growth rise by 24.2% as demand for PPE took off.
The quarterly Builders Merchants Building Index (BMBI) numbers depict a slightly less negative picture than Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) first quarterly estimates for Q1 2020, which showed private housing repair & maintenance work – a mainstay of builders’ merchants’ sales – down by 14.6% compared with Q1 2019 , having dropped 18.6% in March 2020 compared with March 2019 and by 8.6% month-on-month. The decline in the first quarter reported by the ONS is the largest since data was first published in Q2 2012.
Builders Merchants Federation chief executive John Newcomb said: “In the current circumstances no-one will be surprised by the results for Q1, with confidence dropping as coronavirus spread across the world to the UK and many building sites and builders’ merchants shutting down completely when the lockdown took effect on 24th March.
“Sites are now beginning a gradual return to work whilst maintaining enhanced safe working practices. Although this demonstrates the construction industry’s desire to assist in the recovery of the UK economy, with contractors reporting a slump in new orders and reports of projects being postponed it is far too early to say how long that recovery will take.”