By Rachel Dutil | Photos by Jessica McCafferty
As the world shut down in March 2020 and people were forced to stay home and cancel vacations, many people redirected their spending to home renovations. Fortunately for North Country suppliers, many people chose to shop locally for materials. Kevin Sample of Sample Lumber and Jeff Chauvin of
Curtis Lumber both say their businesses have seen record sales since the pandemic started.
But as business volume and product demand rose, so did prices. Simultaneously, product availability became a challenge, which forced some creative, out-of-the-box thinking. “We actually picked up a lot of new distributors because of COVID,” Sample explained. “For so many years we had a template for our buying structure and it worked, so we never changed it. There was no template for the pandemic. Nobody knew what to do, so a lot of new templates had to be created.”
Supply chain issues for lumber started at the mills. Labor shortages caused production to slow from 100% down to about 60% while demand for lumber went up exponentially. Sample explained. “It created such a shortage of materials.”
Chauvin said that in addition to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, the 2021 deep freeze in Texas also impacted supply as 20-30 manufacturers were affected, and it took some time for them to get back up and running. Chauvin recalled that a truck of materials he ordered in September of 2021 was not delivered until June of 2022.
The limited availability of products and the long lead times to get materials made business very challenging. Chauvin admitted that he sometimes felt he needed to guard inventory for his long-term loyal customers.
Decades of Experience
Chauvin started working at Gregory Supply on Tom Miller Road in Plattsburgh in 1986. In 2006 the owner of Gregory Supply retired and Curtis Lumber acquired the business. Chauvin has been working as a regional buyer for the company’s North Division since the acquisition. Curtis Lumber has 23 locations and approximately 700 employees across New York and Vermont. The North Division encompasses the Plattsburgh and Ray Brook stores as well as two Vermont locations. The company has been in business since 1827.
Sample grew up on a dairy farm in Cannon Corners, a small rural hamlet in the town of Mooers. He and his brother, Steve, learned the construction trade. They built a 20×20 building in 1989 and Sample Lumber was born. The business has grown and evolved since those early days. There are currently 14 employees who are trained in all aspects of the business. The brothers are still business partners in Sample Lumber company, but also have a sister business, DS Specialties which Steve and his wife Dina operate. DS Specialties focuses on supplying commercial construction and Sample Lumber specializes in residential and small commercial construction.
DS Specialties is bidding jobs that are a year and a half to two years out. Sample said that gives him a good barometer on what is ahead. “If that commercial side of things is on the uptick, there is definitely a residential increase of some sort coming.”
Within a few months of the start of the pandemic, prices started to increase. “For the first time I can remember, prices went up vertically,” Sample recalled. Chauvin’s monthly pricing reports showed huge spikes and the span of his graph grew which confirmed the vast price increases. “Those vertical price increases were very concerning for us when it came to gauging how much product we should have in stock,” Sample said.
“We’ve always had that little wave where you could be out in a kayak and not tip over. But you could have been out there in an ocean liner, and you would have been upside down,” Sample said of prices over the past three years. In November of 2022, prices started to settle back down and are now coming down to pre-pandemic levels for most products.
“A 2x4x8 we are selling for $3.50 today, was going for $10 – $11 each at the height of the pandemic,” Sample said, adding that it was risky for lumber yards to stock large quantities of staple products not knowing if the price was going to quickly drop off or whether consumers would buy them at the higher prices.
“One of our biggest surprises was the demand for product. It was incredible the amount of home improvement materials we went through during the pandemic. Treated lumber, composite decking, kitchens — in all areas of the business,” Chauvin emphasized.
“Prices were pretty stable early on, but they really took off,” Chauvin said. “What goes up must come down.” Most prices have now stabilized, but lumber prices are still a little high for this time of year.
In order to deal with high demand, some manufacturers cut the number of products they offered. Some roofing companies that typically offered their shingles in 12 different colors scaled back to just four or five, Chauvin explained. Additionally, he said, “Some companies stuck to producing their mid-grade, most popular products and halted production of their high-end products. Now most manufacturers are back to full capacity. They are starting to make some of those ‘best’ shingles again.”
“I think a lot of the troubles in the bigger cities have pushed people to relocate to areas like ours,” Chauvin said. The ability to work from home has allowed people to reassess their physical location. The North Country’s reasonable cost of living, along with access to Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, proximity to Canada, and the people who live here makes it an attractive place to relocate.
“In the last four to five years, a lot of the homes being built in our area have been much larger and more extravagant. In our region, we have a lot of opportunities for these dream homes that people want to build on the lake or near the mountains,” Sample said.
Bringing in new customers is good for business, and both Chauvin and Sample say that their businesses have attracted many new customers over the past few years. The long-term, established relationships with customers are the backbone of the business and maintaining those relationships and providing high quality customer service are key to business success.
“Although demand has slowed slightly, it is not at the pace we saw in the early stages of the pandemic,” Chauvin said. “One of the bigger surprises coming out of the pandemic has been the willingness and understanding of most of the customers to wait for products to arrive. Customers aren’t always patient, and the pandemic has forced the issue a bit.”
Sample observed, “It is hard to predict the forecast beyond about six to eight months. Things are a little bit quiet. I think consumers are trying to get a better understanding of what the higher interest rates will mean.” But both Sample and Chauvin’s quoting departments are staying busy and that is a good indicator of what lies ahead.
53 Camp Ground Road
140 Tom Miller Roa