Natural Stone's Pandemic Trek

Surviving a wild bust-to-boom 2020.

Photo previous page and above by Shyam / Unsplash.

By Emerson Schwartzkopf

The following is based on “2020: The Quirky Recovery,” a video presentation at this year’s TISE LIVE. The hard-surfaces industry went through ups-and-downs in 2020, as COVID-19 managed to stall and then skyrocket business in the space of a few months. For natural stone, 2020 seemed like a roller-coaster ride – in a pitch-black cave. Demand plummeted in the first half, only to climb beyond usage of previous years to set up an impressive second-half finish. Government-mandated shutdowns and consumer lockdown claustrophobia aren’t the stuff of successful years … but it happened. To chart the path of natural stone last year, let’s look at the numbers.

When it comes to the world market in dimensional hard-surfaces, the United States is mainly a shopper and not a seller. Whether it’s for commercial or residential use, we import and use much more than we produce domestically. Of the three main sectors for hard surfaces – natural stone, quartz surfaces and porcelain – it’s natural stone that relies the most on goods coming through U.S. ports-of-entry. The import data from the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) is a reliable barometer of the natural-stone market. Comparing the raw numbers from the USITC for imports and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for U.S. production in 2019 (the last full year of data) shows the annual volume of foreign vs. domestic to be roughly 1:1. However, USGS numbers also include flagging, rough boulders and other architectural (or rubble) stone, and pulling out those totals boosts the influence of foreign stone. Our sister publication Hard-Surface Report looked at the numbers and, when it comes to the dimensional slabs, panels, tiles and other worked goods that are used by U.S. hard-surface fabricators, the best estimate is that 91.5% is imported. In 2019, the U.S. imported almost 2.7 million metric tons of granite, marble, travertine, other calcareous and other materials classified as natural stone*. Of that total, 71% was either worked (at least sawn and one-side polished) granite or marble. One other thing to consider with imports is the time lag that’s created literally by slow boats from China and other locations. Depending on the port of origin, an order can take 30-60 days to sail via container ship to a U.S. port-of-entry. As a result, changes in market demand usually take two months to be reflected in import data.

Let’s start with the first two months of 2020, along with the tail end of 2019. January and February yielded 367,527 metric tons, or 7.7% less than the same time in 2019. The chart shows that a big dip in February is par for natural-stone imports, so the decline wasn’t troubling. Go to the right on the chart, though, and natural-stone imports took an unusual dive in December 2019. That may have indicated the start of a downward trend continuing through 2020 … but, due to the pandemic, we’ll never know.

Advance two months, and the end of April shows year-to-date imports of 726,685 metric tons, off 9.8% from the same time in 2019. Demand is less than either 2018 or 2019, but the growth curve for 2020 is tracking the previous two years.

Natural-stone imports for 2020 get derailed by June, with the year-to-date 1.07 million metric tons falling 19.3% behind mid-year 2019. Last June’s 170,719 metric tons are more than one-third lower than June 2019 imports. Remember that the shipping lag time delays the impact of demand, however, with results trailing delivery at U.S. borders by a couple of months. As a result ….

Natural-stone imports reflect the mid-spring revival in residential work for homeowners cooped up by COVID-19 lockdowns. By August, total year-to-date shipments of 1.5-million metric tons cuts the deficit from 2019 totals by 13.5%. Also, the monthly tally of 256,904 metric tons in August 2020 pushes ahead of the previous August by 5.5%.

By October, the negative balance between year-to-year totals narrow by half, with the 2.1 million metric tons delivered is only a 6.8% shortfall from 2019. On a monthly basis, natural-stone imports for October 2020 are well ahead (17.1%) of the previous October.

Full 2020 import data isn’t available yet; for November, the last month tallied, the 264,187 metric tons is 9.7% ahead of November 2019. The year-to-year total through last November of 2.3-million metric tons is still behind the same time in 2019, but only by 5.2% … a far cry from the 19.3% deficit at mid-year.

Interested in the performance of other hard surfaces last year? Access to 2020: The Quirky Recovery is available through Feb. 25 for registered users at www.tiselive.com.

*Non-roofing slate is not in the total of natural-stone import volume. Some slate imports are measured in metric tons, while others are in cubic yards, making it an apples-to-anvils comparison. To satisfy data nerds, the customs value of non-roofing-slate imports in 2019 was $46.7 million, but that’s only 2.5% of the $1.8 billion for all natural-stone imports.