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Laminate: Positioning helps consumers find the right fit

September 14/21; Volume 30/Number 7

By Nadia Ramlakhan

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 1.43.23 PMDespite recent rumors about the demise of the category, a majority of manufacturers and dealers in the industry agree that laminate isn’t going anywhere. In fact, laminate flooring remains a viable option today, offering benefits such as ease of maintenance, wear resistance, durability and designs that mimic stone, tile and hardwood at affordable prices. Although the product has enough desirable features to impress consumers on its own, dealers often tout its advantages when compared to hardwood, resilient and ceramic.

Positioning laminate, however, is not about which flooring segment is better; instead it is about finding the right fit for the customer’s needs. A combination of her lifestyle, family, desires, tastes and budget will determine whether laminate is the right product for the application.

“Your job as a salesperson is to fulfill needs,” said Mark Nassis, partner at Woodchuck Flooring in Toronto. “When a customer comes in, the first thing you should do is figure out where the floor is being installed, what color she’s looking for, if she prefers graining vs. no graining, etc. From there you can ask about wide boards vs. narrow boards. The last thing you talk about is budget; then you steer her to the right floor for the right [amount of] money.”

Customers look for salespeople who can ease the shopping experience and share their knowledge without overwhelming them. Al Capaul, president of Capauls Floor Covering, with two Wisconsin locations, does not have a preference when directing customers toward product; rather, he makes suggestions based on initial questions. “They usually come in and don’t know what they want. We ask how many people are in the household, how many pets there are, if there are any kids. For the most part laminate meets their expectations—we don’t push them one way or another.”

Some customers walk in looking specifically for laminate because they’ve already had a positive experience with it, but others are steered toward it without a dealer even mentioning the category. “Laminate falls into a certain price point—it’s all about what they can afford,” said Brad Coty, sales manager at Carpet Brokers of Missoula in Missoula, Mont. Aside from price, “a lot of laminate jobs [come about] because people like the way it cleans. You don’t have to spend a bunch of time with it and that’s usually a main selling point.”

Laminate vs. hardwood

Many consumers go to local dealers with hardwood in mind and end up purchasing laminate. Why? These customers usually like the idea of real wood, but scale down to just the wood visual when they realize the price difference. Laminate offers the same looks at a more affordable price, along with Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 1.43.39 PMresistance to indentations, wear and tear, and high traffic.

“When they understand how expensive some hardwoods are, customers often change their minds,” Coty said. “You can get some exotic wood looks in laminate such as acacia or a unique walnut for $3.95 a foot, whereas the real wood might cost $8 or $9 a foot.”

Laminate has become a price-point product, which means someone with a lower budget might opt for wood looks with better wear characteristics as opposed to the real thing. But for higher-end customers who understand what their homes are worth, “they’re getting hardwood, not a synthetic product,” Coty continued. The exception is a high-end customer with pets or kids who prefers the practicality of laminate.

With digital printing and advancements in technology, customers often cannot decipher between real wood and laminate, especially in recent years during which realistic aesthetics, textures, and wider and longer planks have been trending. “A lot of the newer products are doing better because the visuals have changed to look more on-trend with new rustic patterns and more realism in textures,” Capaul said. “That has helped keep [laminate] around, especially with the different species they are now offering.”

Laminate vs. resilient

LVT is available at a similar price point to laminate, but the latter carries multiple advantages over vinyl, including dimensional stability and environmental friendliness. Still, LVT has been putting fire under laminate because

dealers and manufacturers alike have cited laminate’s reaction to spills and moisture as a major weakness. As a result, a number of laminate manufacturers have stepped up to the plate to one-up flooring’s hottest category.

“The LVT market is getting pretty big and laminate is losing ground because of the moisture aspect of it,” Capaul said. “The moisture issue is probably the largest thing to overcome.” To address this concern, newer laminate products feature highly advanced coating technology to ensure spills don’t affect the product, compromise its locking system or cause lifting, gapping and installation-related Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 1.43.30 PMproblems.

In addition, manufacturers are focusing on laminate’s visuals beyond trending colors and patterns. Edge treatments allowing designs to roll over the surface, matte finishes, multi-length and multi-width planks, mixed species, and high visual counts that decrease pattern repeats and create more randomness all add to the category’s aesthetic appeal.

 Laminate vs. ceramic

Laminate can emulate stone’s elegance while maintaining its warmth. Consumers often gravitate toward laminate products with visuals that mimic those found in ceramic or porcelain because of the ease of maintenance and durability associated with laminate. State-of-the-art technology also allows for more realism when it comes to tile looks, offering popular sizes such as 12 x 24, modular formats, sophisticated textures and depth similar to real tile.

Laminate and ceramic or porcelain tile come in wood and stone looks, and both categories are popular options for kitchens and bathrooms, but laminate’s advantages over tile are clear. First, it is much easier to clean because consumers don’t have to worry about scrubbing grout lines. Next, it is significantly warmer and more comfortable underfoot; tile tends to feel cold, which can mean the difference between wearing shoes and walking barefoot in a home. Laminate is also exceptionally durable yet still safe for kids, a plus for families with active lifestyles. Lastly, laminate’s floating options and locking systems save installation time and cost. 

Showroom layout

How product is positioned in a showroom can make all the difference when it comes to closing a sale. If the customer is overwhelmed or cannot visualize the product in her home, she will make her way to another dealer nearby who may better facilitate her purchase process. Because consumers are looking for certain styles and designs rather than a specific product type, successful retailers place laminate in its own section on the floor.

Retailers encourage shoppers to look at large samples, allowing them to see patterns across bigger spaces. Small samples make it difficult for the consumer to picture a product throughout an entire floor. Having various laminate selections installed on the showroom floor allows consumers to see products as they would look in a home. Walking on large samples also allows consumers to feel the textures in each offering.

Woodchuck Flooring’s showroom resembles an art gallery; there are no racks. Instead, large samples are lined along each wall and can easily be taken down and placed on the floor. “As far as side-by-side comparison, we put samples down and let customers walk on them,” Nassis said. “We also let customers take samples home to see how they like it in their spaces. Sometimes they may like a product in the showroom but may not like it in their own lighting and vice versa.” Instead of giving out small samples, customers can sign out full boards for a deposit, which is given back once the boards are returned. “It gives them a good representation of what they’re going to get.”