The American quest for swankier kitchens is running into difficulties importing granite slabs for countertops and vexing industries ranging from trucking to interior decorating.
A lot of U.S. granite imports arrive at the Port of Virginia in Norfolk, multiple containers at a time aboard ships in metal boxes custom-built with extra steel supports so they can handle 29-ton loads—about the same weight as 14 pickup trucks.
Much of the attention given to container shortages has focused on the trade lanes between China to U.S. West Coast ports. But kinks in supply chains extend to the East Coast, too, particularly involving goods with unique logistical needs like unfinished granite bound for kitchen upgrades.
In Norfolk, the need for the containers is so acute that the empties are returned immediately to Asia, Port of Virginia spokesman Joe Harris said. The shortage is likely the result of a short-term imbalance that could be resolved within months.
The port handled 6,760 imported 20-foot containers of granite last year, up about 10% from a year earlier. About a quarter of it comes from India.
“We have always moved a lot of this material because there are some big distributors in Virginia,” Harris said. “It cycles up” as the economy strengthens and “cools off during slower periods,” he said.
Demand for the rock counters spiked along with interest in renovations during the pandemic, and homeowners have been waiting for granite, said Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
”A lot of people are at home, and they are looking for any way to make the experience more enjoyable. That means a lot of work on kitchens and bathrooms,” Baker said.
The center said last week that U.S. spending on renovations last year was $419 billion, a 3% increase from 2019.
Imports from India
Those projects rely on shipments like the dozens of containers of granite from India that, according to customs data compiled by Bloomberg, arrived in Norfolk in March. As recently as late March, the Port of Virginia, among the top 10 U.S. container ports, took in the rock slabs shipped through the southern Indian city of Chennai, a 38-day journey by sea.
Before the pandemic, truckers were accustomed to always having containers ready when they needed to pick one up at the port for their next haul.
“Used to be there were always empty containers on dock. Now if I am able to get a container, there is already someone looking to take it and take it back,” said Butch Steffey, a trucker and owner of the Screamin’ Eagle freight business in Bracey, Virginia, about 120 miles from the port. “It’s not balanced, and the way to fix it is to start moving more American goods overseas.”
Steffey’s company with 20 trucks specializes in heavy loads like granite. It also hauls heavy electrical equipment and needs containers for those, too. If a container for stone is unavailable, that delays the granite’s arrival for U.S. construction.
Steffey said his company has been trying to adjust by trading containers for other goods—heavy-duty factory equipment—for those he can haul granite in. “We do what’s called a road flip when we can,” he said.