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Winning the laminate flooring commodity competition

by Matthew Spieler

As a retailer, I focused on getting to know the leaders in flooring to learn as much as possible about the industry. Markets are the best venue for doing this. Most industry executives show up for these events. At one time there were several shows twice a year. Today there is but one giant market, Surfaces, which is not to be missed. In addition, there are dozens of regional markets, meetings and conventions that are important to attend.

Since the day laminate flooring first came to the U.S. in the mid 1990s, there has been chatter how it will eventually become just a commodity product. And while there has been a race toward the bottom in terms of pricing, there are specialty retailers who still make a profit selling laminate.

Sure, the big boxes, warehouse clubs and national chains have done what they can to drive prices down to where the specialty retailer finds it hard to compete. The question then becomes, as a specialty retailer, how does one convince consumers to bypass the boxes in favor of their local flooring store? In talking to some of the biggest players in the segment, a few common themes came up.

Customer service

Milton Goodwin, Armstrong’s vice president of product, said salespeople need to focus on building a rapport with customers to help them meet their flooring needs. “Help her create a home that is highly reflective of her lifestyle and personal style. The design of a room has the power to change how you feel and how you live. You have the opportunity to help guide consumers in understanding how flooring plays a major role in the beauty and function of a space and be a part of helping them transform their homes.”

Roger Farabee, senior vice president of marketing for Mohawk’s Unilin division, added the wise retailer should excel at providing personalized service before, during and after the sale. “By providing customer service in the areas of style and design assistance, guidance through the selection process and product knowledge, a specialty retailer can ensure the consumer takes home a product that accurately meets her needs. Many consumers still value customer service over price point when making purchases for their home. They also value someone making the shopping process as painless and hassle-free as possible.”

Further, he said, “Use your relationships with established and trusted installers as a selling point with non-DIYers. A portion of the market would never even consider a DIY flooring project. These consumers trust and rely upon specialty retailers who they perceive to be experts in the total flooring purchase to handle the critical component of successful installation.”

Brand power

Goodwin said retailers should use the power of brands to distinguish quality products to support the trade-up story. “Great brands are tremendous assets to retailers—they help bring people into the store and provide a sense of trust and confidence. The most important thing is to get the customer to the door and make the whole shopping process as enjoyable as possible.”

David Anderson, Pergo’s vice president of sales, noted, “Pergo remains the best-selling, best known and most trusted hard surface flooring brand in the U.S. Consumers who visit retail stores specifically request Pergo more than any other brand—and the most straightforward way to minimize the commoditization of laminates is to sell consumers the brand they want.”

Fred Giuggio, vice president of Formica, noted there are different types of brands, from Cadillacs to Hondas. When it comes to flooring, he said, a brand means “a product that performs to meet her family’s lifestyle yet is fashionable enough for her to show it off to her friends.” He pointed out how the Formica name has been associated with home interiors for a century because “it has and continues to do just that.”

Style

Dan Natkin, Mannington’s director of wood and laminate business, said, the biggest weapon against the 99-centers is style and design. “We design the most realistic visuals, combined with a thicker core, and higher performance levels to create a product that is vastly superior to the cheap, commodity laminate out there.”

Goodwin said a key way to attract buyers is through the style and design of the product itself. “This is where laminate shines—from incredible, innovative looks to stark realism, and most important to your customers, the confidence it will stand up to everyday life. Some retailers continue to market laminate as a hardwood alternative, since laminates have be-come more realistic than earlier versions. Some market it as a value proposition to upscale hardwood species. Rather, dealers should be selling laminate as a trade-up from other surfaces like vinyl or carpet.”

As such, he offered the following advice: “Clarify the trade-up story. Clearly call out the key attributes for your customers that drive value. Show them how true realistic looks differ across price points. Premium laminates usually offer the most realistic visuals on the market, often confused with their real wood counterparts. Inexpensive laminates can’t compete in terms of visual clarity, realism or quality.”

Kevin Thompson, Shaw’s hardwood and laminate product manager, said the company is developing and selling higher end/premium hardwood visuals across its entire product line. “We are also offering thicker, beveled edge products that look more like real wood and have a greater perceived value. These make it easier for retail sales associates to drive upgrades and obtain higher profit margins.”

Performance/value

Anderson said Pergo is introducing products with innovative and consumer-relevant features, such as relaunching its Elegant Expressions and Accolade lines—“both of which are exclusive to specialty retail stores”— with new designs and features.

For example, he noted, Elegant Expressions features new, narrow-width designs along with PermaMax surface protection, “which offers twice the wear and twice the durability of ordinary laminates,” and ScratchGard Advanced for superior scratch and scuff protection, a 10mm thick core and a lifetime warranty against wear, stain and fading.

When it comes to performance, Giuggio said while there is a big difference between a commodity-based product and one such as Formica, the price difference is minimal, meaning consumers will pay a little extra “to get a product they know will meet their expectations.”

Farabee agreed today’s consumers are looking for products with a strong value proposition. “Products that are currently top sellers in the laminate industry are those offering a strong value proposition. A good value proposition doesn’t mean cheap. It means offering consumers a quality product at an attractive price. The successful retailer currently captures sales by offering products that are a good combination of style and value.”

Merchandising

Pergo offers new merchandising support for specialty retail customers, according to Anderson. It is also introducing new, flexible merchandising resources for specialty retailers that will allow them to more effectively market the latest Pergo product introductions in-store.

Giuggio said successful retailers have learned to “minimize.” This means reduce the overall number of laminate displays in the store to, at most, three. “The dealers who have implemented this strategy still offer more than the boxes, but now their salespeople are focused on just the top brands that offer great value.”

Goodwin advised retailers to use the merchandising displays to navigate the full range of options and demonstrate sensitivity to customer preferences. “They are there to do more than simply present products—they can help increase sales while maintaining a focus on stylish, high-quality products to visually show the story. Show your customers the options and variety available, keeping all their needs—budget, style, performance, etc.—in mind.”

Made in U.S.A

Shaw’s Thompson, noted, “We continue to promote our Made in the U.S.A. quality story. Our premier products support local jobs and utilize local hardwood resources. Ultimately, we are able to create superior products that are far more reliable than cheaper, imported products.”

Giuggio added beyond the aspect consumers are moving more toward brands whose products are domestically made, such as Formica, retailers should also make sure to tout their local community involvement and heritage. “Specialty retailers are part of the fabric of cities and towns across the country. Their brand is just as important as a national brand because it is something the residents of their town have come to know and trust. Nowadays, the combination of a locally owned store carrying American-made products is a powerful selling tool.”