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Underlayment: Step-up products present trade-up opportunities

March 14/21, 2016; Volume 30, Number 19

By Reginald Tucker

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Underlayment, from a strictly functional perspective, plays a critical role in the professional installation of the wide array of hard surface products available today. At the same time, this essential flooring accessory also has the potential to represent a lucrative profit center for specialty retailers and installers, providing it is positioned appropriately and presented to the consumer the right way.

Take laminate, for example. An ideal way to upgrade underlayment when selling these floors, experts say, is to sell the job by color and style first and then have the retail sales associate simply ask if the customer would like to upgrade the underlayment from base grade. At this point in the sales process, according to Ray Rodriguez, president and CEO of Starline Associates, showing the consumer samples to an upgraded underlayment product that more effectively reduces noise helps tremendously.

Another surefire way retailers and distributors can leverage underlayment as a profit center is through the use of displays and creative merchandising with “liked” products as well as product training, said Julia Vozza, marketing manager, pro distribution channel for Loxcreen Flooring Group. As she explained: “Seasoned installers walking into a distributor warehouse or showroom typically know what they are going to purchase for their job before they even walk in. However, this still provides an opportunity to better inform installers and perhaps introduce them to something they didn’t think they needed.”

Vozza believes distributors can become more profitable selling underlayment if they employ strategic placement of the product alongside related items such as tile, mortars, grout, tools, etc. Furthermore, if the distributor sells more than one type of underlayment with different features at various price points, she added, then they must have the knowledge and necessary marketing tools to communicate the distinction between the offerings. This goes a long way in simplifying the decision-making process.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 10.37.52 AMIt’s a strategy already employed by many successful Loxcreen distributors, including Durox Flooring Accessories, part of the Prosol Group. Michael VanVugt, Ontario sales manager, believes the approach works particularly well at the retailer level, especially when a manufacturer program is supported by what he calls “push-through” marketing. Another plus: Step-up underlayment products go hand-in-hand with the advanced products hitting the market today, making upgrades an easy sell. “With tile in particular, as the formats get larger you can’t lay [the flooring] using the traditional methods,” VanVugt stated. “So a better underlayment product actually becomes a necessity when you’re working with these larger tiles.”

Some industry figures believe the retailer should consider underlayment an essential component of the installation and not simply an add-on. “Unless the floating laminate or engineered wood flooring that the consumer is purchasing has a pre-attached pad, underlayment is pretty much mandatory,” said Jack Boesch, president of MP Global Products, citing recommendations outlined by flooring manufacturers as well as industry organizations such as the North American Laminate Flooring Association and the National Wood Flooring Association. “What this means is selling an underlayment with certain floors should be automatic.”

That’s not to say an opportunity to upgrade should be overlooked. “It’s up to the retail salesperson to upsell the customer from a basic foam to an underlayment that will truly enhance the performance of the floor vs. something that just covers the basic requirements,” Boesch added. “It’s the same fast-food mentality of asking, ‘Would you like to supersize your meal?’ It never hurts to ask. In many cases, the margins are better in the step-up underlayment than they are in flooring, and a hungry commissioned salesperson benefits with a bigger paycheck.”

Asking additional questions as it turns out benefits both the consumer and the retailer. It’s an effective approach embraced by Sound Seal, maker of acoustic control underlayment for tile, vinyl and other hard surface products. “We advise retailers to find out from the consumer how she plans on using the property in which the flooring is going to be installed,” said Dale Asp, national business development manager for Sound Seal’s Impacta line of underlayment. “Is this the customer’s primary residence or a rental property? Once you have that information, you can either offer a base-grade underlayment—which is probably adequate for the job—or you can enhance the sound, feel and overall performance of the floor by upgrading to an underlayment that can give her more stability underneath the surface.”

When it comes to maximizing upgrade opportunities with underlayment, some observers strongly suggest taking a holistic approach. “I would recommend that retail sales associates approach every flooring project as a system, not just a floor covering with accessories,” explained Andy Stafford, marketing and technical manager for Healthier Choice. To illustrate his point, he equates the relationship between floor covering and underlayment to a car and its suspension system. “While I guess one could drive a car without shocks, you would quickly realize why someone would want to pay for the added comfort. Even though the benefits that an underlayment adds to the floor are much more subtle and nuanced than a car’s suspension system, they are still just as important for the system’s overall performance.”

At the end of the day, experts say sundry items such as underlayment represent a natural (and sometimes substantial) opportunity to generate profitable revenue for flooring retailers. “As the market for floor coverings has become increasingly more competitive, retailers are looking for new ways to increase their gross profits,” said Adam Zwickler, regional sales manager for Diversified Industries. “The sundry market represents the solution.”

The good/better/best debate

For many retailers selling underlayment, the multi-tiered strategy is the road often taken. But is it the optimal approach? Manufacturers remain split on the issue.

“I don’t think complicating the matter with too many choices is necessary for a product like laminate,” Starline’s Rodriguez said. “I prefer a simple showing of the base-grade product and only one strongly recommended alternative that can greatly reduce noise, moisture and adds to the enjoyment of the finished floor.”

For Loxcreen’s Vozza, using a tiered strategy often works as long as the end user understands the benefits, features and limitations that each product offers. At the same time, she doesn’t recommend offering a tiered structure that is solely based on price—if that were the case, installers and consumers would have the wrong perception on what they were buying and many would be missing out on the most up-to-date technology for flooring installations.

The key for Diversified Industries, whose FloorMuffler brand is available at outlets ranging from Floor & Décor to Abbey Carpet & Floor dealers and CCA Global members, is twofold, according to Zwickler. “Provide consumers options in terms of price points and performance,” he said. “Secondly, provide consumers with technical information so that they can make informed decisions. “

Ultimately, some experts say, offering a tiered-level program often funnels product sales to the middle because it makes price the deciding factor. According to Healthier Choice’s Stafford, the big box stores have employed this approach for years, leaving the customer to decide which product is right for her without the direction of a knowledgeable salesperson. His advice for specialty retailers? “Position the underlayment as a critical part of the overall system with an emphasis on benefits. I struggle to understand why any dealer would offer an inferior underlayment product to a customer knowing that he could simply upsell her to a great-performing product for pennies on the dollar. This approach does not help the customer and leaves money on the table for the dealer.”