Let’s face it - even in good times, it was tough to really get a firm handle on the growth (or, unfortunately, the decline) of the U.S. stone industry. The only firm statistics that are the monthly stone import figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce - and they tend to provide a nice barometer of the industry as a whole - but they obviously don’t tell the entire story.

For example, let’s take a look at the latest import statistics recorded, which are from June of this year and can be found here. According to the numbers, granite imports rose almost 42 percent when compared to the same month in 2009, reaching a total of $87.41 million. Looking beyond granite, materials such as marble, limestone and travertine (all classified as “marble” by U.S. Customs) also saw gains, as did materials simply classified as “other,” such as sandstone and quartzite. Overall, the U.S. imports of stone in June of 2010 were $39.5 million more than they were in June of 2009.

These are nice numbers, and the industry is definitely recovering, but I can honestly say that no stone importer, distributor or fabricator is telling me that they are seeing 42 percent gains this year over last year.

In reality, the best way to get a feel for the direction of the stone industry is to speak to its members and try and get specifics on how their respective businesses are faring. We recently did exactly that by conducting a roundtable of fabricators from across the country. Participants in this discussion offered their candid views on the current state of the stone industry, and they raised a number of challenges that are still being faced in the marketplace.

“We had two of our best months of all time a couple of months ago,” said Boyd McGuire of All Stone Granite in Tulsa, OK. “And we’re back on par with a couple of years ago.”

However, even though business is picking up for many fabricators, they also stressed that the playing field has changed from its pre-recession state. “Most customers are looking for deals and are going with cheaper stones,” said Scott McGourley of Kasco Stone LLC in Tampa, FL. “Two years ago, we did one job in basic granite for every three jobs in exotic granite. Today, it is exactly the opposite. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that we now do a lot of wholesale work, which is generally basic granite.”

“Our business today barely resembles our business of two or three years ago,” said Miles Crowe of Crowe Custom Countertops in Atlanta, GA. “We have diversified our product offering. We have been forced to streamline our processes. Every homeowner now knows that he can find someone to install Ubatuba in our market for around 30 bucks a square foot. Every homeowner shops around. They all know how to negotiate.”

In terms of pricing, virtually all of the fabricators who participated in the roundtable discussion said they were not lowering their prices to meet lowball quotes. Moreover, some stoneworking professionals reported that they are moving away from square-foot pricing. “We are doing better this year than last year,” said Ken Lago of Granite Countertop Experts LLC in Hampton, VA. “Now the majority is direct sales, as opposed to the past where it was mostly wholesale through cabinet shops and builders. This has given us the opportunity to control the sales process, and we have gotten away from square-foot pricing completely.”

In a nutshell, the stone industry is pretty much where most of us think it is - improving, but with a long road ahead and a vastly different landscape than we saw five years ago.