by Craig Webb, president, Webb Analytics
What’s popular today at America’s decking and railing suppliers? What trends are coming on that have yet to be tracked by analysts? To find out, Superior Plastic Industries, a manufacturer of both vinyl and metal railing systems, commissioned Webb Analytics president Craig Webb to conduct a series of one-on-one interviews with building material dealers in many parts of the country. This spring and summer, Webb spoke with officials at more than 40 companies, from the South Atlantic states o the Pacific coast. Here’s what they said. Respondents were promised anonymity, so people and companies remain unidentified. Their comments are presented in an “as told to” format.
* Aluminum is rapidly taking market share from vinyl and composite. Why? Basically, thin is in.
* Vinyl increasingly is fitting into a price-point niche between treated wood and metal. It appears to be more popular in low-dollar rural areas as opposed to places with second homes and upscale residences.
* Cable rail is growing in popularity beyond its origins on the West Coast.
* Non-wood railing choices are showing notable gains vs. wood railing choices. Treated and untreated wood had 60% of the market volume in 2017. In 2018, that share had shrunk seven percentage points, to 53%.
* Powder-coated aluminum railing is recording the biggest percentage growth, but in volume terms it remains behind vinyl and PVC. Given the anecdotes I’m hearing, it’s possible that powder-coated aluminum’s market share (now 7%) could surpass that of PVC and other all-plastic products (now 9%) in 2019, as well as take a bite out of the market share for vinyl and plastic composites (now 11%).
* Dealers’ overwhelming request: Make railing simple!
* Metal railing systems dominate when composite decking is bought. Customers like the thin profile. They particularly like Fortress over offerings from companies like Azek because it’s simpler to put together.
* Unlike dealers in the South Atlantic and Gulf regions, nobody out West who I contacted sold white vinyl railings, even at dealers located near the Pacific Ocean. This is in part because they said distributors don’t stock it or promote it.
* Hog wire is popular in some of the rural areas, but often it’s regarded by dealers as a replacement for fencing rather than as a component for railing. A number of dealers refuse to stock it, citing safety concerns.In more urban parts of the country, cable railing is installed on metal posts. In more rural areas, cable is mainly being used on wood posts.
* PVC enjoys popularity in areas such as a part of Alabama where white front railings were used on older homes, in part because the window frames also were white. In back, PVC was abandoned for other choices.
The dealer executives who provided these “as-told-to” comments were promised anonymity, so they are identified here only by the general region of the country where they are located. Some designations—like Great Lakes vs. East and West North Central—seem to overlap, but that’s in part because some of the dealers operate over large territories. Dealers in the Northeast weren’t interviewed because SPI already had a good handle on trends in that region.
We’re beginning to sell more and more of the stainless steel cable rail. Even on the interior; they’re using it on staircases.We sell some vinyl, but we don’t sell a lot of metal at all. It’s just not something that’s big in our market.
Treated is still our No. 1 exterior decking product, without question. When the chemicals changed, a lot of dealers decided we aren’t going to stock crap any more. We only sell clear and prime No. 1—nothing else. We had to clean up our act, and so did the builders. Every piece we sell is treated for ground contact. We sell almost all the brands. Builders will try something and they like and their subs know how to use it. You have to work hard to get them to look at new products. Most people are using some type of composite if they aren’t using.
Because most of our homes are large and very expensive, we haven’t gotten into the cheaper composites. People don’t think about overall cost and value. Darker colors need replacing, and installation can be a problem.
A lot of the building around here is being done is by tract builders. We also get custom home builders—we have a recreational lake in which there’s a lot of development. We had a huge increase in business from ’17 to ’18. A lot of that was because of a hailstorm that put $2.5 million of roofing sales into our coffers. For ’19, we don’t have a hailstorm and with lumber being 35-40% less, our numbers are still ahead of last year.
We’ve sold a tremendous amount of treated lumber. Last year it was a truck a month. This year it’s two trucks a week. Timbertech has come out with a lower-priced cap composite. We put it in inventory and sold it a bit of that, and it gives us an opportunity to upsell.
A lot of people still do wood railing, but we sell a lot of the Fortress Iron Railing. Builders like how it’s easy to put together. And you’re seeing a lot of cable rail. We sell some of that, but I think it’s being used out more on the lakes because there are so many products out there that you can go online and buy. I think the pros are doing that and bypassing us. We have kits, which for a small deck works well. East Coast Millworks has a cable rail system.
Hogwire fencing—the big heavy 3x3 squares—i’ve seen that being used now, whether with wood or with metal.
PVC? For us, we don’t sell much of that. A lot of these houses are out on the lake and are more rustic. White’s more for colonial. People on the lake are going with darker colors. But when we do higher-end projects, people go with radiance rail. People want a dark color deck with a black handrail. That way, you can get it all from one source.
It appears that the aluminum panels and kits are very popular. It’s moving away from the old infill kits for railing that the manufacturers offered. They’re all going to an aluminum panel or aluminum kit similar to Fortress.
Vinyl isn’t growing as much. We probably sell more of the Fortress that anything else. We have a stocking program with Fortress that we’ve had for years. We also sell the Trex Signature line and Timbertech’s aluminum line.
Cable railing got really popular two years ago and has kind of maintained that level. It’s popular in the mountains and around lakes; there, the view is important. It really peaked probably in 2017 and 2018 and while it’s still a big component, the trajectory of growth isn’t as steep.
Wild Hog railing came in and is really popular. It’s taken a bit of cable rail’s share. It’s a good look and can be used with anything from yellow pine to Azek.
In the Southeast, Southern yellow pine is such a cheap component to build a deck. But we’re seeing replacements. Consumers are more interested in maintenance-free composites. You’re also going to see more single-family builders go to composite. There’s a lot more opportunity to build at not much more cost.
We told the manufacturers they had way too many options in railing. It was overwhelming.
We have cut down considerably on our stocking SKUs and railing components. It was an inventory nightmare to have all those infill kits. Over the last 3 years, we’ve dropped about 50% in SKUs counts—but we were growing that much in sales volume—and we rely on manufactures to have the components in stock within 48 hours.
During the winter buyers, there were additional discounts for more trucks. They tacked on some very good buys for the basic rail components. We stock three different colors of rail posts. They offered deep discounts and good terms for pallet quantities.
Looking ahead to 2020, I’d probably cut down on some companies like Deckorators.
We’re hoping to expand cypress and cedar business and set up the saws to do remand and resaw capabilities to provide different products.
We see the PVC capped composite to be rising as opposed to just the straight PVC. A lot of that is cost-driven. The market is moving to the 3-side capsulation, in part because Azek/Timbertech has a new board, Edge.) We think that’s going to move the market down. There’s still a need for the full PVC but it’s just the cost point that’s too high.
We have been very big into vinyl railings for years, but we’re seeing a fairly significant move toward aluminum—usually a cast-aluminum railing rather than a lighter gauge. And there’s growth in composite. If you look in the Southeast, we sell more vinyl, but in the rest of the country it’s moving toward aluminum railing. I think people see the product as being heavier, a high quality product. In the Southeast, aluminum also is growing, but just not as fast.
I hadn’t heard about Wild Hog, but I’m calling it up on my PC screen as we speak. I view any railing that has a horizontal member to be a stepladder. And when you have 2- or 3-year old kids, well, I would never sell that product. When a railing is 3-1/2 or 4 feet above the ground, that can be a death height.
We’re down by the water so we try not to push the wood, because salt water destroys, Stainless steel hasn’t proved its finish over a long period; iIt doesn’t matter if it’s machine grade, 3/16, or 304. So the vinyl, we’ve had good luck with it. Fairway is probably most common, then Trex, then Azek. I push Fairway. It’s easy to quote and easy to put together.
The PVC is really getting hot in our market, as it has for the last 10-15 years. It stays true and the water doesn’t hurt it. We stock a good amount of Kleer PVC.
As for what types of vinyl railing people want, we sell both round and square balusters, chippendales. Not much lighting gets sold on a new install, but there’s some aftermarket business.
Sales of stainless steel cable rail are minimal.
What we do is we still sell mainly wood. We sell some composite. For railing, we make our own. it’s a 2x4 that’s rounded on the top edge and has a groove in the bottom for the picket.
But from what I understand, the code has made that obsolete. We still sell it mainly for restoration.
As for cypress, we do a little. When I first came here, old-timers wouldn’t touch it. We also do custom millwork. For a while, we almost got to the point where there wasn’t that much to do. Now we’re about full up. We got 15 doors that need to be put in new frames.
We have houses that are worth several million. What they want depends on the designers and homeowners. We have people on million-dollar lots. If they have some small deck, they’ll do composite.
We sell Azek in the after market. It’s twice as expensive at pressure-treated but has twice the life expectancy. No splinters, no slippage.
We don’t have much metal; it’s a salty environment. I don’t care how good you coat it, (the rust) seems to get through, even with a powder coat. We do sell some stainless.
RDI is vinyl. We do some of that. Timbertech, too—we do some of that. The vinyl doesn’t seem to be as solid as I personally would prefer. But Timbertech is good and sturdy.