New fences, fresh floor coverings and plenty of paint: home improvement has become the national pastime during the coronavirus pandemic as the nation has spent more time at home – and rediscovered a passion for DIY renovations after a decade of decline.
The closure of pubs, restaurants and sporting venues, financial pressures and the need to adapt houses and flats to cope with changed circumstances and working from home, prompted a boom in DIY and gardening this year, particularly among 18-34-year-olds who previously shunned such activities.
After years of flagging sales, store closures and cost-cutting at B&Q, the group is hoping the tide has permanently turned.
The DIY chain’s parent company, Kingfisher, which also owns Screwfix, is hoping to cash in on the trend, which has reversed years of gradual shifts towards relying on professional builders and tradesmen. It is investing in digital marketing, home delivery and new products that can capture the imagination of the Instagram generation.
“There is a proportion of customers who have said that for the first time in my life: ‘I am doing DIY, I learned new things from the internet or my parents and I enjoyed doing it,’” says Thierry Garnier, the chief executive of Kingfisher.
He hopes research suggesting that many of those who try out one job will go on to do more is correct and the trend is here to stay, even when under-35s have more sociable alternatives available.
“We are adjusting to the way they shop, with Instagram and Pinterest, click and collect and online,” Garnier says, walking around the group’s bright new store in St Albans.
While there are fears that sales will be hit next year when job losses are expected to mount, Garnier says that will not necessarily translate into falling sales. “The majority of people can’t afford to [hire in a builder]; they have got to do it themselves.”
Garnier has plenty of data to prove how consumers fell back in love with DIY in 2020.
It began in the spring – with painting fences and sprucing up patios, walls or cars. Sales of pressure washers soared by 80% at B&Q.
We then moved on to gardening, kitchen refurbishment, creating home office setups and outdoor entertaining.
The second wave of Covid-19 prompted consumers to buy early Christmas decorations – so early that lights, trees and baubles sold out at B&Q two weeks earlier than normal.
It has been the same story in other countries. Demand for fencing, decking and sheds in Europe and the US has put such a strain on timber supply chains that sawmills and manufacturers are working flat out to cope.
Paint suppliers to B&Q are concentrating on the most popular shades, reducing the product range so they can keep up with the demand for high volumes.
Garnier, who joined Kingfisher just over a year ago from the French supermarket Carrefour, where he ran the Asian arm, wants to revamp the business, which owns 1,370 stores across eight countries, including the Castorama chain in France and Poland, and the Koçtaş venture in Turkey, to pull in newly houseproud millennials and generation Zs.
Environmental and social concerns, which younger shoppers expect to be taken into account, are being given new impetus with a partnership with Shelter to improve poor housing, and there is also a pledge to create more forests than it uses by 2025, partly via a new scheme with the Rainforest Alliance.
But the big focus is on digital. The Frenchman is heavily influenced by his time in China, where Garnier says rapid adaptation is the norm and all kinds of goods – “from a glass to a fresh lobster” – can be delivered to homes in 30 minutes in most cities.
“I believe the younger generation is looking for speed. You see that in TikTok and every trend.
“I would like to be like China. It is not for everyone but I think the need for speed is not going to disappear.”
He says stores will remain central to delivering these services as only operators such as Amazon have the scale to make swift deliveries from centralised distribution centres.
“It is a better option than a fulfilment centre. When you have stores, you have the assortment and the team. If you organise yourself well, you can achieve that [speed],” Garnier says.
During the pandemic, when the demand for home shopping rocketed, B&Q began using its stores to help pick and pack home deliveries – a move that had already been planned but was accelerated. The group now handles 1.5m orders a week – 90% of which are picked up from stores.
Online accounts for 17% of group sales, up from 8% before the pandemic, and Garnier wants to expand further.
Further digital plans under consideration include an Amazon-style marketplace, where other brands could sell goods.
It is also opening smaller stores in handy locations where goods ordered online can be picked up, including outlets in Asda supermarkets and a click-and-collect Screwfix store near Victoria station in London.
The B&Q in St Albans, which at 5,100sq ft is half the size of the group’s largest stores, is home to a design centre – similar to something you might find in John Lewis and Ikea – where shoppers can get advice on matching paints and wallpaper. B&Q is also testing out tool hire, in partnership with specialist Speedy, in 10 stores.
Garnier wants “more services, more tests and more new”.
He says: “We need to be comfortable with uncertainty and, very important in a new world where we are never perfect in our life, we need to be comfortable with constant change.
“If it is not Covid it will be something else – a new competitor or government decisions or social media’s way of getting information.”