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Carpet: Spoiler alert—Broadloom isn’t going away

January 16/23, 2017: Volume 31, Number 16

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 12.16.53 PMWith hard surfaces growing and gaining market share over soft surfaces every year, it might be easy to dismiss carpet as a has-been product. And yet, carpet is still the queen of floor covering, the largest percentage category by more than three times that of runner-up resilient, the fastest-growing segment.

Carpet has lost market share, no doubt, but the drop-off has not been as steep as feared. In 2006, for example, carpet represented 50.9% of the flooring market in dollars. Ten years later, carpet is still at a healthy 43.4%. The next closest category is resilient at 13.3%.

Further illustrating the point, carpet remains an $8.9 billion category, which is up from $7.8 billion five years earlier. That’s a $1.1 billion increase, or 13.2%. The problem is on the residential side, where sales have dropped from $5 billion to $4.8 billion over the last five years, assuming we classify the $770 million Main Street business as commercial.

“Carpet wouldn’t be the first flooring category to be written off,” said Tom Lape, president of Mohawk Residential. “Laminate was a high-flying category that became commoditized, and many retailers and distributors have backed off the segment considerably. However, laminate remains a viable product at the higher end.”

And so, too, will carpet, which continued to do well at the high end as well as low end. Carpet has been the most popular floor covering in America for decades and with good reason—carpets feel soft, reduce noise and insulate rooms. In fact, new carpet is the lowest VOC-emitting flooring choice available, proponents say. It acts as a passive air filter, trapping dust, pollen and other particles and removing them from the environment. Studies have shown that people with asthma and allergy problems have seen symptoms improve with carpet.

For the long-term health of flooring dealers, carpet needs to remain viable. As everyone knows the replacement cycle of carpet is faster than hard surfaces, which means more transactions for dealers. A customer who buys a hardwood floor today may never need another floor in her lifetime. A good carpet needs to be replaced in about 10 years. Flooring dealers want carpet to rebound for obvious reasons.

“Carpet is the most profitable part of our business and it is the product we have the least amount of problems with as far as installation,” said Paul Johnson, owner of Johnson Carpet One Tulsa.

Manufacturers believe it is important to bring true innovation to this category to excite consumers. “We have to give the consumer a better story and solution. We have to excite those in the trade and make it exciting and fun for consumers to buy carpet,” Lape said.

Some dealers say too much of the spending activity these days is at the commodity level. Bill Zeigler, owner of Charles F. Zeigler & Sons, in Hanover, Pa., said he would be interested in knowing what percentage of the carpet sold today is low end and going in new construction or apartments. “The lower quality carpet sold over the last decade will not be replaced with more carpet in most cases. A mistake made in this industry is letting builders drive the market. I could go on and on about this topic alone.”

Focus on the high end
Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 12.16.58 PMWhile low-end carpet has had its moments, the upper end has flourished. This is where the Mohawks, Shaws and Beaulieus of the world play. Lape said the question for the industry is: “Are we going to play to win or play not to lose? At Mohawk, we are going to continue to invest.”

Steve Weisberg, owner of Crest Flooring in Allentown, Pa., knows carpet will always be an important category. “I think the question should be, ‘Will carpet ever dominate the home as it once did?’ My answer to that is, ‘No, it won’t,’ but as more product such as Shaw’s LifeGuard is produced, I do believe there will be more uses for soft surface products than there are now. Consumers still love soft surface floor covering; the industry just has to find ways to allow carpet to have more viable features and benefits. LifeGuard is a very positive start to doing this.”

LifeGuard, with a waterproof backing system, responds directly to consumers’ need for ease of maintenance combined with the comfort and softness of carpet. Brad Christenson, vice president, soft surfaces, Shaw Floors, said LifeGuard has successfully elevated Shaw’s carpet collections and made for an easier upgrade for homeowners.

Chris Coltran, an industry consultant who works with several flooring retailers, predicts the pendulum will swing back to broadloom, particularly the luxurious higher-end market. “Why wouldn’t carpet make a comeback? Long hair in the ’70s and short hair in the ’80s are back in style today. Miniskirts in the ’60s, gone in the ’70s and back again in the ’80s. It doesn’t matter whether it’s clothes, cars, colors, styles; they come and go with the decades and carpet won’t be any different.”

More important, carpet will continue to be an integral component of a retailer’s business, Coltran added. “If you threw out all your carpet displays and only sold hard surface, you would lose a big chunk of your business. Successful dealers are focused on selling higher-end, more profitable carpets to make up for the lack of yardage in homes.”

Soft and luxurious resonates with consumers, research shows. Mohawk put that statement to the test during 10 “mall intercepts” in which it compared 10 products. Consumers chose softness each time, Lape explained, noting, “That is what she wants to walk on; that is what she wants in her home.”

At its Solutions meeting in December, Mohawk introduced SmartStrand Silk Reserve, a product the company said has managed to make silk feel even softer. Dealers attending the show gave it a two-thumbs up (FCNews, Dec. 19/26, 2016).

It is that level of innovation that is needed for carpet to reclaim its status as the queen of the home. “With its warmth, softness and coziness, carpet is increasingly being associated with offering a tranquil reprieve from chaotic lives,” Shaw’s Christenson said. “There will never be a product category more suited for this environment than carpet.”