Updated: Sep 5
In April, several German fencing installers sent us the new Aldi brochure. The accompanying comments ranged from ‘Look, we can retire,’ to ‘Look, now they’ve killed off our wonderful profession’.
Had you told us 10 years ago that in 10 years time you’d be able to buy fencing at the discount supermarket, we probably would have questioned whether you still had all your ducks in a row. But in actual fact we could have seen that it was coming. Because it’s a trend that has become established for some time now. For years already, fences and gates have not just come to customers via a fencing installer. That was already underway in the last century when the construction markets started to sell fencing as well.
It’s a phenomenon you see in all industries when a product, which is in high demand, has been refined to the limit of its development. Let's take bricks as an example. Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, someone came up with the idea of baking bricks from clay. The first bricks were kneaded into a shape by hand, but this method was soon overtaken by the mould box that allowed a series of bricks of (approximately) equal size and structure to be made. This development made the brick a handy, easy-to-process and cheap-to-produce building product, with which the Romans were already building entire cities. Over the centuries, all sorts of different shapes and variations were invented of course, but the basics of brick-making did not change. The brick was more or less perfected and there wasn't much room for improvement. There was only one option with which brick producers could distinguish themselves from their competitors: ensuring a better price. Since extracting, firing and transporting clay cost about the same everywhere, they also had only one means for reducing the price: increasing volumes so they could spread all the fixed costs over more bricks. So, what happened then? Whereas in the past every village on a river had its own brickworks and its own small kiln, now you only see large brick factories that produce millions of bricks a year
Exactly the same thing has happened in the fencing industry. Rigid mesh panels, rolls of mesh, posts, fixings – you name it: they were all invented by someone once, then improved or modified a few times by different parties until a standard emerged that was sufficiently perfected. After that, people stopped developing and merely copied, with price becoming the main differentiator.
Once it's a question of price only, another economic effect comes into play: the demand-driven market changes into a supply-driven market. Factories no longer produce according to market demand but force each other to increase production. Because whoever is unable to match the price will sell nothing. This leads to investment in better and faster machines and they have to be kept running. The demand becomes a secondary consideration. In this way, fencing materials also end up at DIY stores, building material dealers, landscapers, garden centres and, of course, no end of Internet shops. With the discount supermarket ultimately being the low point.
But now the question: is that necessarily a bad thing?
One side effect is that all kinds of amateur handymen can also easily obtain fencing materials. Then suddenly you see a van driving around with the legend ‘Man with a Van. For Caretaking Services, House Clearances and Fencing’ – and you spontaneously take a deep breath. On Facebook, we occasionally come across pictures of the quality provided by these highly professional fencing contractors. Sometimes you have to laugh, but more often you just cry. But other than that?
Actually, it's not such a bad thing. Leastwise, not in our view. This phenomenon actually makes the market a whole lot bigger. Lots more people think about buying a fence. People who previously thought a fence would be expensive see a special offer at the garden centre and think ‘Hey, perhaps we can get one after all’. Most of the Aldi customers, who put – what are extremely thin and light – mesh panels in their trolley, are not customers who would otherwise have bought their fences from a fencing installer. They would never have considered the idea.
But at the same time, all this abundance of fencing does have a magnetic pull. Neighbours, fathers-in-law and colleagues see that Aldi fence somewhere in the garden and think ‘I want something like that too’. However, a number of them won't want Aldi quality but something better than that and will come to a professional to get it. In that respect, the Aldi and internet shops act as advertising for fencing installers in a kind of roundabout way.
Of course, the reverse also happens: Customers who weren't concerned that much about quality used to go to the fencing installer and pay more than they actually wanted to, simply because they had nowhere else to go. But here in the editorial team, we estimate that effect to be smaller than the other way around.
A second effect is that it also creates new opportunities, if you join the trend yourself. For example, with your own internet shop, or with your own fencing market. And we mean the word market as in ‘construction market’ and ‘supermarket’, but for fences. A few things need to be looked into but it isn't that difficult really. Lay out a small show garden, on a piece of land that you don't use for anything. Put a few fluttering flags on the street and hang a big sign saying ‘Fence Market’ on your façade – and you'll have come a long way. Next, of course, you need to make sure that you have the materials that the amateur fencers need in stock. You can make that range as extensive as you like, from rolls of chicken wire, privacy slats and garden gates to complete sets for aluminium insert fencing. Additionally, you need a warehouse manager, or someone in the office who is happy to jump on a forklift from time to time. And then you have to do a bit of advertising in your local weekly paper so people know you exist. For many fencing installers these may be tasks that are somewhat out of their comfort zone, but they could trigger family dads to come to you with their Ford Mondeo and a borrowed trailer at the back on Saturday mornings from now on rather than driving to the garden centre. We know several fencing installers who’ve had a lot of success with such a fencing market.
In any case, what you shouldn't do is sit on your laurels. In fact, the self-same phenomenon is being played out in all sections of the construction industry. Kitchen and bathroom tiles, roof tiles, complete plastic windows and doors, taps, electrical sockets and everything else needed in construction can also be bought on every street corner. And it was like that for a long time before the same happened with fencing. But that did not mean that all the tilers, roofers and plumbers could down tools and retire. On the contrary. Their services are in demand everywhere – because they have professional expertise.
And the same thing goes for our sector: if you are a fencing professional and run a professional fencing business, your fencing services will continue to be in demand. The customers who come to you do so because of your professional expertise. Not because they expect you to compete with Aldi. And there are enough of them. Official bodies, all the average businesses in the local industrial park and also those individuals with two left hands will just keep on buying their fences from you. Look after them as skilfully as you can, get paid properly for it, and your business will enjoy a bright future. <