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Wood: Proven strategies for selling bamboo at the retail level

October 10/17, 2016: Volume 31, Number 9

By Reginald Tucker

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-11-17-27-amBamboo flooring might be considered by some as an unusual, exotic product. However, there’s really no mystery in how to market and position the product for success.

First and foremost, retailers need to partner with suppliers that have a good track record and solid reputation manufacturing the product. “There used to be a time when people were bashing the category due to bad experiences with companies that didn’t know how to manufacturer the product,” said David Keegan, president and CEO, Bamboo Hardwoods. “There were also many retailers that didn’t experience any problems. But I think we’ve moved on and the good manufacturers are left. Overall, the companies that have survived are the ones making good product. So much depends on where you buy it and how it’s made.”

If Keegan had his way, he would like to redirect the conversation from, ‘Hey, let’s give bamboo a try; it’s not so bad,’ to ‘It’s time to talk about the incredible resource bamboo flooring represents.’ “That’s the story and it needs to be told again. With bamboo you get all this performance, great style and design. Plus, this plant is the most efficient plant in the world that basically turns sunlight into biomass, sequestering carbon and producing oxygen 365 days a year, and it creates an amazing story.”

Others agree that it’s time to turn the page from the period when claims dominated the discussion. “Years ago bamboo had a bad reputation among some consumers, because when it first came out there were some issues with product quality among some manufacturers,” said Vicki Jewell, customer relationship manager for Dasso, which markets the EcoTimber line. “There were a lot of problems with people buying the floor to find that it wasn’t holding up. But we’ve been doing it for years, and the company that makes our bamboo uses a method that’s been tried and true. The important thing for retailers to know is all bamboo is not created equal.”

Phillippe Erramuzpe, COO of USFloors, attests to the strides manufacturers have made in recent years. The turnaround, he said, came about as a result of companies paying closer attention to the details. “Bamboo over the past few years has had a bad reputation due to an onslaught of claims due to issues with solid strand bamboo which—if not manufactured properly—will not perform well,” he explained. “You have to be very careful where you source your strand woven bamboo. In addition to that, you have to make sure you have the proper density and manufacturing method because if you don’t have that the product can shrink.”

Today the major bamboo manufacturers and suppliers are putting more emphasis on re-engineering the product by developing new formats. USFloors is one of those companies. “We have been working very closely with our manufacturer to see what can be done to improve the product,” Erramuzpe said. “Today there are several manufacturers in China that are making a very good product in terms of solid strand bamboo. But in the meantime what we have decided to do as a company is to focus on engineered strand bamboo whereby the platform is on an HDF substrate. In addition, the edges are sealed with wax to prevent penetration of moisture that could affect the joints. That product is performing extremely well and we have not had any issues.”

All in the presentation

USFloors has increased its assortment of bamboo with unique decors and different constructions.
USFloors has increased its assortment of bamboo with unique decors and different constructions.

Technical issues aside, many customers respond more favorably to the visual story line. In short, that means positioning the product in such a way that consumers will be drawn to it. “Many retailers perceive bamboo as being just a green product, but it should really be placed side by side with other hardwood floors,” Keegan stated. “That’s something that a lot of retailers learned was a mistake in the past. If they’re selling bamboo—and we believe they all should be—they need to put the bamboo right next to similar colors and patterns and let people choose on the basis of aesthetics, price and performance, and what appeals to them for their particular installation. That’s the biggest lesson retailers can learn.”

Bamboo Hardwoods knows this all too well. To date the company has placed several thousand displays in the field. The results have been tangible. “A lot of retailers are making good money selling bamboo,” Keegan said. “If they’re selling a high-quality brand that shows the right colors and styles, they can make a good margin on it.”

Another key to presenting the category properly entails “under-selling.” In the early days, there were a lot of misperceptions about bamboo regarding its overblown performance attributes. For retailers to continue to succeed, they need to dial back the hype. “Consumers were taught to think that bamboo is bulletproof or that it can’t be scratched,” Keegan said. “But you have to remember that it is a natural fiber and you have to care for it like you would any other product—don’t get it wet, you must acclimate it properly and install it according to NWFA guidelines. The misinformation hurt the category in the past because people had certain [unreasonable] expectations about the product.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with highlighting the product’s natural attributes and documenting them accordingly. “Bamboo needs to be marketed for its durability and density,” Jewell said. “On the Janka scale, bamboo is going to be in the mid-3000s vs. oak, which is 1100. Then there’s the environmental story; you can grow bamboo and harvest it within five years. It’s rapidly renewable resource. Our bamboo is formaldehyde-free which is good for people who are concerned with healthy homes. And it’s priced well compared to some of the exotic woods on the market.”

All things considered, the pros outweigh the past cons when it comes to selling bamboo. As evidence, one need only look at the rate of new product development. At Wellmade Performance Flooring, for instance, the focus is on developing products that mimic the look of wide plank European oak. Dubbed Villa Grand, the textured line of solid strand bamboo is fully embosssed for added depth and is offered in trendy designer colors, according to Steve Wagner, director of sales and marketing. Also available from Wellmade is a new line of parquet bamboo floors designed to integrate with Wellmade’s engineered strand products.

Innovative products are also the focal point for Bamboo Hardwoods, which recently launched a line of wire-brushed, hand-scraped products. The line also features a multi-ply core and backing for added strength and durability.

Not to be outdone, USFloors is expanding its bamboo offering with new colors and patterns. It’s a testament to the company’s outlook on the category. “We believe bamboo will be a very strong category into the future,” Erramuzpe said.