The Wuhan Coronavirus has impacted all facets of the world economy, and the knife industry is no exception. This article from the “Knife News” column in the upcoming May 2020 issue of Knife Magazine. Since there is a lag between writing and publication, and 2 weeks is like a year in “pandemic-time”, we wanted to share this piece digitally while it is the most up-to-date it can be.
At the time of this writing (April 7th), we are bracing for what the Surgeon General is calling “a Pearl Harbor moment” with regards to Coronavirus deaths, but there seems to be signs that at least in the early hot spots like New York, the curve has begun to flatten. By the time this issue hits mailboxes, we will know if other metropolitan areas will see their own spikes, or if the extreme lockdown of the economy has succeeded in damping down the pandemic.
What we do know, is that the Coronavirus outbreak has had a profound impact on the knife industry, as it has on virtually all segments of the economy. Small, part-time makers are seeing a benefit as they have more shop-time while sheltering at home. The biggest custom makers with the longest waiting lists seem poised to ride things out so long as they can maintain stock of raw materials, as there is always someone happy to move up in the queue. It is the smaller full time makers who are taking it the worst, as orders cancel and many folks are holding off on making new purchases. There is some hope in that for the first time ever the self-employed will be eligible for unemployment and there are several small business assistance programs which will arise from the stimulus package. At the moment however, some custom makers we have spoken with report frustration as good intentions run into the reality of bureaucratic inertia.
On the knife making supply front, Oklahoma based Jantz Supply reports that while they have closed their brick and mortar to all but pickup orders, most items remain available. “Much of what we sell is used in other industries as well, for instance Norton Abrasives’ belts are used in all sorts of essential industries”. One category of item is largely unavailable, as they are deemed essential elsewhere – particulate masks. Jantz has been sold out of N95 masks for some time now, but even ordinary dust masks are becoming unavailable.
Business forecasting is especially difficult. After seeing sales grind to a virtual halt for a couple of weeks when the lockdowns first started, Jantz supply saw a boom in sales as competitors ceased sales and hobbyists and pros alike stockpiled for a longer term hunker. This has begun to taper off to what they report as typical sales volume over the past week. Hobby level knife makers represent a significant portion of their business, and this sector typically performs well during economic downturns.
These are “interesting times” for the production knife industry as well. Office staff from across the industry are working remotely, but many production lines remain open. Because many large companies have government contracts, they are deemed “essential infrastructure” by the Department of Defense, though what this means varies by company, and where they are located. New York based KA-BAR has temporarily ceased production, though their shipping department remains open and orders are being processed. “We are in a position to weather this storm and are doing our best to get folks what they need, particularly our Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, and law enforcement the tools they need to do their job”.
On the other hand, Hogue Knives in Henderson, Nevada, and Golden, Colorado’s Spyderco are both still producing knives.
But it is anything from business as usually these days. “Domestic manufacturers are going to need to safeguard their supply chains for critical products”, according to Hogue Inc. Managing Owner Jim Bruhns. For Hogue Knives, that has meant that certain Asian-sourced items like pocket clips have been brought in-house, and throughout the company they are looking for potential improvements and ways to increase future domestic production. They even have a team attempting to leverage Hogue’s expertise at molding polymers to help improve the seal of medical face masks.
Facilities have had to adapt production to accommodate CDC best-practice guidelines. According to Spyderco, they employ “a full-time sterilization team on-site with highly-elevated safety and proactive health standards. We started this process early and vigorously, long before state and federal guidelines considered becoming more restrictive. The wonderful new is everyone is healthy and we continue making Spyderco knives at our normal levels, in all of our manufacturing facilities”. Similar measures are being taken both domestically and abroad.
CRKT is an American company who while headquartered in Tualatin, Oregon produces most of their knives in China. According to Douglas Flagg, VP of Marketing and Innovation, “While we acknowledge the current situation is dynamic, we’re confident in our ability to deliver to our customers. We have significant inventory on hand to fill orders and our supply chain is diversified”. They did not indicate whether or not they are experiencing disruptions to current overseas production.
No one knows where we will all end up when this has passed. One common thread between all the companies we spoke with is the sense of pulling together to get through this difficult period. Both Hogue and Spyderco made a point of stressing that they are retaining all of their employees. “The unprecedented shift is succeeding and we’re honored and humbled that our staff jumped into it, head-first, wholeheartedly and immediately. It’s been nothing short of extraordinary what Spyderco’s 135-staff members have been able to do nearly overnight”, says Spyderco’s Joyce Laituri. “It would be a lovely reality if there was such a thing as a crystal ball to see where the cutlery industry will stand, once everything settles (and it will settle)”.
Hopefully sooner, rather than later.