Google search data sheds light on last year’s timber shortages

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Anyone working in the building supplies industry will know how much of a headache it has been to keep up with demand over the past year. Bricks, plaster, tiles and, of course, timber have all been in short supply at some point – leading to project delays, price hikes and potential cash flow issues for tradespeople and construction firms struggling to complete work on time.

Builders’ merchants had to manage customer expectations as lead times for once-readily available products grew.

It was particularly challenging for smaller firms, who don’t always have the buying power to make bulk purchases and who rely more heavily on builders or joiners picking up materials on the day. However, the shortages were felt across the board, with major supplier Travis Perkins warning of higher costs and longer lead times last summer.

Back in May, the Timber Trade Federation, which represents suppliers in the UK, said that the shortages were largely due to high demand, pointing out that ‘timber is still being imported and produced at high volumes.’

But supply chain disruption caused by Covid, Brexit and logistics capacity has also been blamed. Almost 70% of construction companies reported even longer lead times in August last year compared to July, while 84% of supply chain managers said they’d paid more for their purchases.

Controlling costs

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that the industry was fighting hard to control costs.

Our research shows that Google searches in the UK for cheap timber and associated keywords were up by 78.27% year-on-year compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.












Percentage difference




Searches for cheap timber peaked in March last year – up by 89.5% compared to the same period in 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. This continued throughout the following month, with searches up by 50% compared to April 2019 figures.

According to our research, this followed a spike in demand at the start of the year with searches for ‘cheap wood’ up by 50% in both January and February, compared to the same period in 2019.

By Autumn, the timber market appeared to have stabilised due to record imports between January and July, and production ramping up.

December’s IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Purchasing Managers’ Index gave the industry another reason to be hopeful, with one expert suggesting that the ‘worst of the supplier delays seem to have passed.’

That could be why we saw Google searches for ‘cheap timber’ drop by around 64% in October compared to the peaks of March and April. In fact, by November 2021, searches for ‘cheap timber’ and ‘cheap wood’ were no different to what they’d been for the same month in 2019.

Looking further afield

It’s evident that this problem was not just UK-centric, with similar issues being felt stateside and across the world in Australia as the impact of the pandemic slowed down supply changes and search demand shifted drastically.

In the US, searches for cheap lumber and related keywords were up by 42.84% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, reflecting the challenges felt across both sides of the Atlantic. [1] This peaked in March, where searches were up 93.8% compared to the same month in 2019.

Similarly, demand for affordable timber was also up by just under 20% in Australia, with a building boom in the country stripping timber supplies bare and leaving merchants with tough challenges ahead.[2]

Tools for the job

The past two years have shown us how quickly the market can change and it seems we’re not out of the woods yet. The Construction Leadership Council, for instance, has warned of potential timber shortages this year due to congestion at the ports in the UK and Scandinavia.

But builders’ merchants have risen to the challenge, adapting their offer during the pandemic. Some launched an e-commerce service while others, such as Bromley Timber & Builders Merchant, ran a delivery and collection-by-appointment service during the first lockdown, using our technology to keep a digital record of orders, sales and customer requirements.

There are steps builders’ merchants can take to mitigate the impact of materials shortages. Ensuring you have the latest insights from across your business in one place can help you to manage inventory more effectively and help to protect margins. It’s easier to align supply with demand, manage customer expectations and, if you run a multi-site operation, take advantage of bulk buy discounts.

You might use your marketing and CRM tools to highlight some of the alternatives to wood but it’s more important to listen to your customers and find out what they want. Traditionally, this would have been done via informal chats when they pick up supplies but now technology allows you to cross-sell on a bigger scale based on data from past purchases and behaviours.

Of course, there are alternatives to wood that may be more readily available, cost-effective and sustainable. Cork, as this article suggests, can be a good option for flooring and since it’s made from bark, it doesn’t require trees to be cut down. Like wood, bamboo is also strong and durable but can be harvested within three to five years and the plant grows back.

The decision ultimately rests with the client, but builders urged them to be flexible last year to prevent hold-ups.

Demand for sustainable materials is rising, as we saw in our recent blog. It’s no coincidence that Google searches for ‘sustainable timber’ and ‘sustainable wood’ peaked in October and November last year, around the time when COP26 was taking place.

We all hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and that supply chains will be steadier over the coming year. However, by arming yourself with the right tools to work efficiently and deliver business insights, you’ll be well-placed to respond quickly to any challenges and opportunities in an ever-changing market.

Find out how Spruce business management software for builders’ merchants can support your company.


All results are based on Google search data as of January 2022. We analysed search volumes for keywords such as ‘cheap timber’ and ‘cheap wood’ and related terms such as ‘cheap outdoor wood’ and ‘cheap timber for sale’ for every month in 2019 and then again for every month in 2021.

ECI Staff Contributors

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