18 May, 2020
The Covid-19 virus has devastated the world economy, turned the lives of billions of people upside down, and ripped apart business of every kind.
It has also led to a spurt in the digitalization of the natural stone industry, traditionally conservative and resistant to changes of any kind. The forced lockdown everywhere has made some new and existing technologies so popular and common place within a few weeks that anyone would think they have been used since years. Most people were not even aware of the new possibilities in the beginning of March this year, just when the lockdown finally become the norm everywhere, rather than the exception.
The most evident change of all is in the use of the Zoom platform. All of a sudden, Zoom has become the favourite communication medium, almost as popular as WhatsApp, perhaps even more. Businessmen, especially those who sell to customers located in towns and cities other than their own or who are exporters, often spend their entire day video conferencing with customers and suppliers on the Zoom platform from the comfort (we assume) of their homes. Salespeople have suddenly realised they do not have to catch the next day early flight to a continent or country far away to meet their customers and close deals, or even conduct complex negotiations. It is a bit unnerving to find that people connected only by business relationships can now enter the privacy of one's home, but people are adapting fast and putting up all kinds of screens behind them when they are online. (More and more they are also getting the angle of the camera right, during the first month everyone was looking at the other person's often unshaved chin and one’s own).
Zoom has led to a prolific boom in video seminars, and the word 'webinar' has now become common. Just a few months ago organising a seminar with physical presence of participants required huge effort in time and expense, and, often inconvenience, with dozens of people having to spend a lot of time in traffic jams going too and forth to the venue. It meant dedicating at least half a day for this purpose. All of a sudden, video seminars can be organised at the drop of a hat, and early experience is showing the attendance by login is actually higher than in the traditional ones. (How many of the participants in these virtual seminars are in their underwear, is unknown !). The Indian Stone Federation, known by its acronym FIGSI, seems to have taken up this initiative enthusiastically and is now already conducting a seminar a week, apart from holding its executive meetings frequently without people having to fly over for that purpose from another city. So has the Centre for Development for Stones (CDOS) in Rajasthan in India. Other associations too are getting into the act. World Natural Stone Association (WONASA) has held brainstorming sessions among its members, and also webinars. So has the NSI in USA. And there are surely many more events which have been held and gone unreported.
One interesting and highly desirable initiative during the lockdown that has taken off and which is usually very hard to implement, is reaching out to designers and architects. Getting the attention of 50 interior designers and architects for even a few minutes used to be one of the most difficult challenges the natural stone industry has always faced. One can only estimate the huge expenses and failed efforts made over decades to reach out to this elusive group of professionals. Forced by the lockdown to work from home, some stone companies have individually organised seminars to reach out to specifiers. In early May, Vitoria Stone and Granos, both companies from Brazil, organised webinars on the Zoom platform, targeted to an audience of architects in Brazil.
However, with people already complaining of an excess of seminars and video conferences by Zoom (or Microsoft Teams), it is not clear that once people can move around normally and return to their normal routine, the attendance to these kind of events will be even reasonably good. This window of opportunity may close down very soon as the novelty wears off and people get fed up of the saturation.
It was perhaps inevitable that there would soon be someone organising a digital fair. Sure enough, the first Smart Fair is being organised on the dates 27 to 29 May. It is easy to imagine the traditional trade fairs organisers in the stone industry also getting into the act soon. In fact, the Xiamen Stone fair organisers are already planning a digital fair starting in June.
Tech seminars by machinery manufacturers is another new initiative, or, at least, something that is becoming better known. One cannot go to a trade show to observe with one's own eyes how the machine works and what are its features? That problem, at least, is being somewhat resolved by some machinery manufacturers.
Digital inspection too has started growing at a speed unimagined 3 months ago. With blocks already extracted in the quarries but the block inspectors unable to fly in from China or Europe or wherever, to inspect and mark them, in cases where there is a long established relationship of trust between buyer and seller, self inspection has become a new alternative.
The same phenomenon is also occuring in the stone processing factories. Where there has been a long standing relationship between a buyer and stone supplier, and the processing factory has a history and reputation of being reliable and trustworthy, self inspection has made things move faster. When it comes to first quality material, the buyer usually leaves all the discretion to the processing factory. Things do become tricky when the slabs or tiles may not be exactly as the buyer wanted, ( after all, we are dealing with a natural material), the acceptance and price are usually subject to negotiations. Most likely, this issue too will be sorted out soon, though with more time spending bargaining by video conferences and showing closeups of the materials by camera.
The wholesalers too are getting into the act. Many wholesalers had actually digitalised their stocks a long time ago, especially the big ones, but there were also many more smaller stockyards where the sale of every slab is subjected to personal and often exhausting negotiations. The owners of small stockyards are now realising that this way of doing business will put them at a disadvantage.
It is still early days in the digitalization process, right now the key objetive everywhere is survival. But one can be sure that a year or so later, when hopefully everything would have calmed down, the daily business will be conducted in a very different way. There is no substitute for personal connections and human relationships, traditional trade fairs will soon be back, and so will business travel. The human need to interact with others and bond with people, is simply too strong. But, to the relief of many sales people, they may also be able to spend more time at home with their families.