Volume 44, Issue 5 - May 2009

Feature

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Is There Any Mirror Industry Left At All?
by Megan Headley

The mirror industry is just like any other group struggling to make it through the current recession. Only some might say the North American mirror industry has been struggling for a long time now. Between overseas competitors and slow residential construction (see February 2006 USGlass, page 66), the domestic industry certainly has seen better days. 

“Obviously the mirror market has been a tough market for a while now, probably for two reasons,” explains Marc Deschamps, business development manager of Walker Glass Co. Ltd. in Montreal. “First, because there’s so much imported product that has flooded our market for a number of years now. The Chinese and European imports coming into North America have obviously attacked our market share and this has put downward pressure on prices. 

“The other issue we face is just a trend issue,” he adds. “Mirror may not be as popular for a bunch of traditional applications, such as bathrooms, for example, where you used to have the large piece of mirror above the bathroom counter. Now general contractors are going a different route. The demand there is not as strong as it used to be.”

But there’s a bigger reason today that demand for this established product continues to lessen.

“The mirror industry is tied into the residential market,” says Jim Ventre of Vitro America in Memphis. “Everybody understands that the residential market is down tremendously. If it’s down, then all of the mirror manufacturers are down; it’s as simple as that.” 

Some, like Thomasville, N.C.-based Stroupe Mirror Co., already have folded to the economic pressure and closed their doors for good (see March 2009 USGlass, page 20). 

Others are trying to remain optimistic about increases around the corner. 

“We’re seeing larger quantities on some of our quotes, so when we do get jobs they seem to be bigger jobs—but there are fewer of them,” says Jim Arnold, president of GLASSource in Grand Haven, Mich. However, he adds, “They seem to be larger jobs though, more commercial. Definitely not residential.”

Following Demand for Decoration
If demand for mirror in traditional applications is lessening, it could be because designers are learning that glass products, in general, can be expected to do “more.” A window is no longer just a window if it’s also contributing to thermal comfort, perhaps protecting a room’s inhabitants or maybe even acting as a canvas for a logo or other design. Why shouldn’t mirror behave the same way? The increased demand for decorative glass products is one trend that has begun to influence the mirror industry.

A lot of the jobs we’ve been doing have seen a little more value-added—they’re either sandblasted or they’re beveled or v-grooved,” Arnold says. 

“That’s why we came up with our line of acid-etched mirror products five or six years ago,” Deschamps notes. 

“We have been able to make mirror and then go one step further and acid-etch it, which turns the mirror into a pretty unique and distinctive piece of decorative glass,” he adds. 

When a variety of building products are competing for space in the few projects available, it helps to be able to offer a product that can make the most of a space. 

“That’s helped us quite a bit,” Deschamps says of Walker’s decorative additions. “Part of that program we’re involved in is not only the clear mirror and the acid-etch, but also the specialty, ultra-clear, low-iron mirror with acid-etch, plus tints—the blue mirror acid-etch and bronze and green. That’s opened up other mirror applications, and certainly we’re always thinking along those lines and trying to develop new products or new ways to use the product so that we can go to different markets and meet new demand. It’s not just the traditional mirror going into a bathroom or a sliding door or in a gym or something.” 

“Acid-etched products have become more and more popular over the last couple of years. There are companies that silver it, which helps the mirror side of things, of course,” Ventre adds.

Drew Mayberry, president of Lenoir Mirror Co. in Lenoir, N.C., notes that there also are “some products that are being developed in the area of painted [mirror].” He adds, “Are these things going to be big enough to offset the decline that the mirror manufacturers have seen? It’s far too early to tell.” 

Seeking Solar Market Share
There is also, of course, that growing demand for glass as part of the solar industry. Concentrating solar power (CSP) is one solar technology that uses mirrors to convert the sun’s energy into high-temperature heat. The heat energy is then used to generate electricity in a steam generator. CSP’s relatively low cost and ability to deliver power during periods of peak demand have led to growth of its usage in solar farms throughout the Southwest United States. This growing industry naturally is piquing interest. 

“Until [the residential market] comes back … when a topic like solar mirror pops up everybody’s eyes grow and their ears open up, because they’re looking for something to add to their dying business,” Ventre comments.

But moving into the solar industry is far from simple. For starters, Mayberry points out, “A lot of the mirror that is being used in solar is a curved product, which eliminates the possibility of doing it on a conventional silver conveyor.” 

Companies that are exploring this new area are doing so cautiously. 

“We’ve looked at the solar market and certainly are still looking at it and obviously there are a few challenges related to that,” Deschamps says.

“It is a very different animal, quite honestly, and I think that it’s new to everybody. When I talk to my peers, my friendly competitors, we don’t say a lot because it’s virgin territory,” Ventre says. “It’s a work in progress.”

An Edge Over Overseas Competition 
“I don’t see quite as much impact [from China],” Mayberry says. “I don’t know whether it’s because … the Chinese have recognized the demand in the U.S. market is down so they’ve lessened their aggressiveness toward this market, or it’s an issue of people have begun to realize to import their mirror products they’ve got to make a pretty big commitment, in terms of full container loads and keeping the containers heading this way. During a slow period like this, companies don’t have to tie up nearly as much inventory to buy domestically, and they don’t have to commit as much in terms of dollars.”

“I’d say it’s tapered off,” Arnold agrees. “People can’t afford to bring in a whole container of something anymore.” 

As Mayberry points out, “Most of the imported products you have to pay for up-front; while the cost per square foot of the imported mirror might be less, your economic commitment’s not as great to buy domestically because you don’t have to buy as large an increment at a time.”

Arnold also notes that he’d noticed of some importers, “The beginning of last year they raised their prices [on product] from China. A couple of price increases closed the gap, and then when demand slowed down people stopped buying so much Chinese mirror.”

While this may offer an edge to the domestic suppliers now, Mayberry adds of his overseas competitors, “Have they gone away forever? No. But I don’t see as much of it as we were seeing a year or so again.” 

“There are ups and downs; there are peaks and valleys,” Deschamps agrees. “Can I say that the overseas competition is consistent? Probably not. In certain markets it comes and goes and in other markets it’s continuously present. Therefore we always need to promote our own advantages and our own edge, versus our overseas competition. It’s always somewhere and if it’s not you can bet it will be, or has been and will come back.” 

But when it does come back, Walker for one has made sure to find ways to respond to the competition of overseas companies. “There are two routes that we’ve taken,” Deschamps says. “The first route is internally making sure that our process is as efficient as it can be. We need to keep our production costs as low as possible. We have a continuous improvement program here. Trying to be as efficient as possible, trying to make mirrors as cheaply as we can, keeping up with the equipment and technology, making sure we have the best equipment and the best materials available—that’s very important. 

“The other aspect,” he adds, “is trying to come up with new products, and different ways of using the mirrors.”

Ventre points to other ways domestic suppliers can work against their overseas competition’s weaknesses—limitations that suppliers should be pointing out to the building owners or contractors selecting products based on price. 

“With mirror from China you have to be equipped to handle it … You have to be able to wait the 12 or 16 weeks to get the product, so there lies inventory concerns. Who can wait that long for a product that they may need in a few days or a week or two? Once again, it’s a small percentage,” he says. “Then, what’s your recourse if you buy some mirror from China and something goes wrong? What do you do? It’s not like calling a [U.S. fabricator] and saying ‘make good on this.’”

Keeping an Edge
Regardless of new opportunities, mirror manufacturers, fabricators and retailers face a distinctly depressed market. To get through it, every company needs to buckle down on unnecessary expenses and continue to highlight its strengths. 

“I’m trying to look at this as a period that challenges us all to see how well we can do to get through this thing,” Mayberry says. “We’re eliminating any unnecessary expense and just managing our operations as tightly and as efficiently as we can.” 

He offers an example of managing operations more efficiently. “We scrutinize every invoice—not that we weren’t looking at them before, but we look at them now with the attitude of ‘can we live without this?’ It’s the same thing we have to do in our personal lives and our personal finances. You scrutinize everything and you can’t take anything for granted. It’s amazing how, when you’re pressed, you find things that maybe you took for granted before,” Mayberry says. 

“[For example] the expense of all utilities has gone up, whether it be kilowatt hour or gallon of water. All of those things have gone up in the last few years but we continue to find ways to use less of them. You’ve got to keep that attitude and that focus on making on ‘how can we make do with less, without jeopardizing product quality or purpose?’” 

He adds, “I truly believe that we’ll all both personally and corporately be better people from the way we deal with this situation.”

Megan Headley is editor and Debra Levy is publisher of USGlass magazine.

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