The rise and rise of the DIY industry

The DIY retail market is second only to grocery in the UK.

The DIY retail market is second only to grocery in the UK. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

While some sectors have floundered during the pandemic, the DIY and home improvement market is busier than ever. Richard Burton found out more.  

Back in the days when I was studying hard and making the tea for the sort of newspapermen I wanted to become, my mum would fret every time a fuse went or a tap leaked and remind me and my siblings she “wasn’t made of money”. 

I used to refrain from reminding her “that makes two of us”, given that a copy boy – something close to what my estranged naval officer father would have called a midshipmite - earned less than the amount most of the reporters claimed on the expenses they made me fetch. 

But I didn’t. Instead, I traded on the free movement afforded to a fairly anonymous junior who made a point of remembering the names of everyone’s wives and kids and turned out for the works football team. 

Rather like later years, mingling with what the media call Specialists, colleagues you see on TV giving expert views on anything making the news. Like the motoring editor who would tell me which car to buy and the travel editor who sorted out my first Esta visa. 

But these were humbler times so the rich vein of expertise had to be found on the shop floor of a former factory in Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead, newly refurbished as home to the Thomson evening newspaper, Baby Boomers will remember as the Echo and Post. 

Behind a shopping mall of an open-plan newsroom, lay typesetting and composing rooms and a large print warehouse that smelled of ink, wood pulp and, by early afternoon, grilled bacon. 

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Spread throughout were a coterie of down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and frankly, highly skilled, individuals who liked nothing more than living up to their reputations for rolling up their sleeves and getting things sorted. 

When the boiler immersion went and left us without hot water, Big Stan in photosetting worked out it was “most prob’ly the thermostat”, not the element, and asked a pal in Chiswell Green to dig one out in return for a “drink”.  

And he was right. As was Disco Dave who suggested I bring in a three-bar heater so he could have a look in his lunchbreak.  

Many a time, I’d wander among the scalpel-scarred paste boards, waxed bromides and Page Three pictures with a query to be told: you need Wozzname in the despatch bay.  

Like Big Stan, and Disco Dave, Wozzname had enjoyed a tradesman’s life before a major employer arrived promising hundreds of jobs within walking distance of Bennetts End. He even had one of his van drivers drop a 12-inch drill bit at my house on the way back from a drop-off at WH Smith. 

In later years developing properties, I realised that what drove many of them wasn’t simply a charitable disposition but a genuine love of their subject. Big Stan would positively relish problems. He’d see me coming and intercept with “so, what is it this time?” Suspecting he’d be crestfallen if I was problem-free, I did once pretend I’d got a key stuck in a lock and needlessly borrowed his WD40.    

These days, as we again lock down into virtual ghost towns, we often find ourselves asking Ghostbuster questions when wondering just who we’re gonna call when things go wrong, and anyone with a basic understanding of how stuff works seeks out modern-day Big Stans on YouTube.

And I’m alone. Which is why the country saw such a surge in demand for DIY products last year. According to the data experts, Statista, in one six-day period at the beginning of the COVID outbreak in March, online sales of home improvement and gardening retail products grew by almost 50 per cent on the previous year. 

The UK saw a spike in demand for DIY products last year. 

The UK saw a spike in demand for DIY products last year. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As the summer wore on, so did the rise in interest. By the end of June, the Office for National Statistics was reporting that the DIY sector had fuelled a recovery in retail sales that had arrested the effects of the COVID drop-off, jumping nearly 14 per cent in June on the previous month. 

And in July, COGNITION Smart Data, Green Builder Media’s market intelligence division, revealed that DIY projects had increased by up to 75 per cent in some markets since the onset of the pandemic.  

“Paint, lawn and garden, and general home maintenance have been the most common DIY projects undertaken in the past few months,” they said. “But there has also been an uptick in more complex DIY projects like plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and electrical work.” 

They also reported “substantial growth in remodelling projects that help declutter spaces and optimise the use of indoor and outdoor areas” in line with homeowners’ changing needs. 

Last month, Travis Perkins announced it would return business rates relief and furlough cash for its Wickes and Toolstation businesses as a result of the strong demand for pandemic-fuelled DIY. 

And B&Q owner Kingfisher told its investors it planned to hand back £130 million received in rates relief in Britain and Ireland, while the Midlands-based Lumberjack Tools announced it had doubled its turnover. 

Not that the trades have been left behind. On the day the first lockdown was lifted, I reported on these pages something approaching an invasion of vans in the square mile around me alone as builders flooded back to pick up stalled projects. 

And while the DIY retail market is huge – second only to grocery in the UK – some builders merchants have been keen to highlight a trend for DIFM – ‘do it for me’ – rather than DIY. Natural, given that some jobs are clearly off-limits to anyone other than professionals.  

Big Stan used to have a plumbing mantra, all about “Regs” and staying away from anything where the worst outcome would be more serious than a wet carpet. And it was an equally cautious but enthusiastic hardware merchant who showed me how to safely bend and join pipes back in the day.  

Building a relationship with staff at your local hardware store can be mutually beneficial, Richard says.

Building a relationship with staff at your local hardware store can be mutually beneficial, Richard says. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was a village store, not much footfall, and the bloke behind the counter was the one who owned it. I went in one sleepy day and said I’m still new to all this but if you give me a few tips, I’ll park my car in the pay and display and get everything from you, instead of going to Texas Homecare where I can park outside: probably my earliest incarnation of the phrase win-win. 

Roll on the years and I’m in the press room at the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home expo with one of those celebrity makeover crews and chatting about how easy they make bricklaying look on the TV. 

Twenty minutes later, I’ve a trowel in hand and I’m smoothing a nice 3:1 mix on to a house brick with a couple of likely lads in monogrammed sweatshirts to the delight of a crowd drawn more by their banter than their skills. 

Turns out Richard's DIY skills don't stretch to bricklaying. 

Turns out Richard's DIY skills don't stretch to bricklaying. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Twenty minutes after that, I realised I’d no sooner lay a brick than an egg. Fixing stuff is one thing. Building from scratch is quite another.