After transforming the fortunes of hand-sanitiser and soap producers, the pandemic looks set to do the same for another previously unheralded industry — the manufacturers of outdoor heaters.
A wave of new restrictions on indoor gatherings in western countries heading into winter has set off a scramble for heaters that will allow people to socialise safely — and warmly.
Buyers range from households keen to meet with friends and family outside to pubs, bars and restaurants desperate to attract enough customers so they can stay in business through to the spring.
“We’ve been in this business for 55 years and we’ve never seen demand like the last three months,” said Pete Arnold, chief executive of AEI Corporation, a California-based outdoor heating supplier.
Despite England’s pubs, bars and restaurants having to shut for much of November as part of a second lockdown announced last weekend, executives in the UK hospitality industry say that outdoor heated space will be vital to their fortunes once they are allowed to reopen.
Phil Urban, chief executive of Mitchells & Butlers, one of the UK’s largest bar chains, said that the group had decided to press ahead with a £1.5m investment in heated and covered outside spaces.
“The view is as soon as we do open we will need those outdoor spaces. It’s difficult to see over the next three, four, five months being able to operate normally,” he said. England’s second lockdown starts this Thursday and is scheduled to last until December 2.
Heaters aimed at domestic use retail for between £50 and £100, but prices can reach up to £800 for higher-end products.
“People are becoming less price sensitive,” said Paul Morey, chief executive of Herschel Infrared Heaters, a Bristol-based manufacturer and supplier.
However, manufacturers and distributors the Financial Times spoke to in the US, UK, Australia and China said that the record level of demand risked pushing a supply chain dependent on shipping the bulk of heaters from Asia’s largest economy to breaking point.
“The entire supply chain has broken down,” said Mr Arnold of AEI.
Steve Levy, managing director of Heat Outdoors, a Hertfordshire-based distributor, said Chinese manufacturers that typically deliver gas heaters within six to eight weeks can now only do so by February or March. As a result, the company resorted to paying for 1,000 units to be flown in last weekend, even though rates for air freight have trebled.
While England’s new lockdown only permits people to meet with one other person from another household in public outdoor spaces, households have been preparing for months of winter socialising in their gardens.
Elizabeth Terry, a retired doctor from Wiltshire who is vulnerable to infection due to cancer treatment, said she had not entertained inside at all due to Covid-19 and had spent £300 on her third electric outdoor heater last month.
“It’s been a life saver for us. We’ve sat outside with friends of ours at 7 degrees outside,” she said.
Mr Levy reckons that England’s second lockdown will provide some temporary respite for suppliers.
“It’s a bit of a relief as we were not coping with the level of demand,” said Mr Levy, who plans to use the window to restock.
If distributors in the UK and US are struggling to get hold of heaters, manufacturers in China have not been able to produce them quickly enough.
Sam Xue, general manager at Liangdi, a Changzhou-based manufacturer, said the company had increased its workforce by 30 per cent since the summer and production was running at 1,000 units a day — double last year’s levels.
The heaters come in two broad types: those powered by gas that are less environmentally friendly and dominate the US market, and electric infrared ones. Concern over their effect on the environment had prompted France to outlaw both types this winter, but the ban has been pushed back until the spring because of the pandemic.
It is one reason why some are refusing to join the rush.
“They are expensive to run, they don’t last that long and they are not good for the environment,” said Ralph Findlay, chief executive of UK pub group Marston’s, which has left heaters out of its plans to navigate through the pandemic.
But for other UK pub groups, the question of heaters’ green credentials takes second place to trying to stay in business once the government allows them to reopen.
Jamie Atherton, general manager at Quarter, a Bristol-based independent group of bars, hotels and workspaces, which created outdoor areas with heaters at two venues and plans to reconfigure more space during the lockdown, is unequivocal.
“We do this or go down,” he said.
Additional reporting by Judith Evans in London and Sun Yu in Beijing