Stone Column

Better than 2009, but still flat

I just finished proofreading a statistical article for TILE Magazine (one of Stone World’s sister publications), and the basic gist of the piece is captured in the headline you see above. Basically, the author was saying, “The industry is in better shape than it was in 2009, but it is still flat.” This sentence can also describe the stone industry (or pretty much any industry related to the building trade), and the statistics bear out this sentiment.

Each month, when I receive the monthly stone import statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, I eagerly compare the numbers to the same month the year before. And for the past 18 months or so, I have consistently been seeing increases ranging from 5% to more than 20% over the previous year. Even as late as May and June of this year, stone imports were outpacing 2010, and they were significantly better than 2009, when the industry hit rock bottom (no pun intended). The results were so encouraging that I was compelled to use Social Media to “Tweet” the good news — and believe me, I never Tweet in my personal life.

Over the last couple of months, however, the stone import stats have been nothing to Tweet about. In fact, for the latest month recorded (July 2011), the value of granite imports actually dropped slightly — less than 1%, but still a discouraging statistic considering how much room there is for improvement. On a positive note, marble imports increased by 7% during that same month, and that segment — which includes limestone and travertine — has been slower to rebound than the granite sector. This is an illustration of how uneven this whole industry is at the moment.

Of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Perhaps even more important than raw data, I place a great deal of emphasis on what industry members in the field are telling me. At trade shows and when visiting stone suppliers or fabrication shops, one of my first questions is “How’s business?” And I am not asking this to be sociable. The answers I get vary, but the bottom line tends to be “things are flat.” These days, most members of the stone industry seem to be thankful just to be in business, and while they agree that the worst days are behind us, it will take awhile before we see a full recovery.

In particular, the fabricator segment of our industry seems to be skittish in terms of investing. During a fabricator forum that I moderated earlier this year, I asked the audience about their machinery investment plans for the near future, and the crowd grew silent and simply stared at me for a few awkward moments before one of the panelists mentioned his purchase of new cutting technology. In an “electronic” version of this same exchange, the current “Poll Question” at asks about future equipment investments, and only 24 people have answered. As editor, I know how many thousands of people visit our Web site every week, and the fact that only 24 people even responded to this question is indicative of just how uncertain people remain at this point.

Surprisingly, half of this small group of respondents said they were indeed planning a major investment — CNC, waterjet, etc., but a quarter of the total clicked the box that essentially says, “Absolutely not!”

A much more in-depth look at the state of our industry is coming in the near future, as Stone World’s annual Fabricator Market Forecast is currently taking place, and the results will be published in January. If you receive a questionnaire via e-mail in the coming weeks, I am urging you to please take a few moments to respond, as your input is very valuable for our industry as a whole.

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