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Laminate: State of the industry—Segment thrives despite impact of WPC, LVT

March 5/12, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 19

By Reginald Tucker

 

For all the talk about laminate’s demise in the face of intensifying pressure from competing hard surface categories, the now-mature product segment is proving it has staying power. Ongoing innovations in the form of dramatically improved resistance to moisture, ultra-realistic replications of natural materials like wood and stone, and upgrades in surface texture and product performance are keeping the segment in the spotlight.

While the laminate flooring category has certainly ceded some market share to red-hot products such as WPC, SPC and LVT, the fact remains it is still a viable option since its official entry into the U.S. marketplace more than 20 years ago. “As manufacturers, it’s our job to remind people of the incredible benefits laminate flooring offers,” said Roger Farabee, senior vice president, laminate and hardwood, Mohawk Industries. “We’re asking consumers to take another look at the product category and great visuals and performance it offers. They can now have a premium wood look without any compromise. At Mohawk we are still very bullish about the product.”

Farabee is not alone in his assessment of the product’s capabilities. Dan Natkin, vice president, wood and laminate, Mannington, attests to both the category’s long history and reputation for durability, as well as the newfound focus on waterproof attributes. “In some cases, we’ve lost sight of what makes laminate great—phenomenal realism, all bio-based, superior indentation and scratch resistance, and the fact the vast majority is made in the USA. Most laminate is significantly moisture resistant as well, with multiple manufacturers developing new technologies to make the product nearly impervious to liquids.”

Other proponents are bullish on the category’s current position in the marketplace. “I think the laminate flooring industry is in a good place,” said Derek Welbourn, CEO, Inhaus. “It continues to enhance its core value proposition, which is a great-looking floor at a leading price point that won’t let you down on performance. We see continued evolution in terms of design and features that are creating some amazing looks and furthering the value proposition of laminate.”

Travis Bass, executive vice president, Swiss Krono, also sees the laminate flooring category moving toward better visuals, deeper textures and innovative products. This provides an opportunity, he said, to continue educating the consumer—via retail exposure and industry associations such as NALFA—about the benefits of laminate. “It’s a wood-based product with the look and feel of solid hardwood, but with less maintenance and more durability,” he noted. “It’s easier to install and offers a much healthier, sustainable environmental impact than many competing products.”

Despite all these benefits and attributes, the category is not without its challenges. Reported overstatement of the product’s capabilities—something that negatively impacted the segment’s reputation in its early days in the U.S. 20 years ago—is a growing concern for some industry observers. Back then it was about overselling the product’s resistance to dents and scratching, leading some to suggest it was virtually bulletproof. Today, it’s mostly about managing consumer expectations when it comes to claims about moisture resistance.

“I can’t speak for other manufacturers, but Shaw is not going to make claims on a product that could ultimately disappoint the consumer,” said Drew Hash, vice president, hard surface product/category management. “We choose to be more conservative in our approach.”

For executives like Barron Frith, president, CFL North America, the attributes must square with a particular manufacturer’s marketing claims. “We have been big believers in water-resistant laminate since we launched our Atroguard line in 2013. No doubt the water-resistant feature is the future of the laminate category and will leave less space for regular laminates. Many big players are entering this market, at the same time leading everyone to push further marketing claims about being ‘waterproof’ as opposed to ‘water resistant,’ causing confusion about the performance of the product.”

Mohawk’s Farabee also warns against the dangers of misleading consumers about moisture resistance. It’s critical, he noted, to remind dealers that not all products are created equal. “Based on some of the testing we’ve done, some of the products do not live up to the claims they make. The question becomes, does it create significant consumer dissatisfaction and potential blowback for the category? That remains to be seen.”

What Farabee can say for sure is many companies are focusing on how to minimize any visible damage from water incursion at the edge of the products as opposed to the tongue and groove area. “Most of them have been introducing lower-swell coreboards, which will help that problem overtime, but the one we worry about—which is also an issue with floating vinyl—is the majority aren’t doing anything with their joint systems. And while they may have minimized damage through topical moisture on the edges of the plank, you still have moisture penetrating the joints and creating issues under the floor.”

For its part, Mohawk said it has developed products that are far more moisture resistant than laminate floors made many years ago. So much so that “we have personally developed technologies that enable us to make some moisture-resistant claims far beyond what everybody else could. We’ve had these products out in the market for more than two years now, and it has given us a position in the market where we can go head to head with one of the No. 1 attributes that LVT and rigid core have been talking about for the last several years.”

While some companies remain cautious about specious product claims, other major suppliers welcome all the hoopla surrounding waterproof/water-resistant marketing. “We believe it is helpful for the category,” Inhaus’ Welbourn stated. “Ever since the change in core construction from particleboard to high-density fiberboard in the 1990s, laminate has stood up well to moisture. But through new innovations, this feature has been enhanced. However, laminate is still a wood-based product and it’s important that we don’t oversell these features and disappoint consumers. If a company tries to sell a laminate as being impervious to water, we need to ask the question, ‘Can you install it in a shower or a steam room?’ If the answer is no, I would question the waterproof statement.”

Mannington’s Natkin also sees benefits in touting the category’s water-resistant attributes. “Realistically, laminate is already one of the highest performing product categories given its resistance to indentation and scratching, as well as the ease of installation. Water resistance is the icing on the cake.”

CFL is also embracing the renewed focus on the product’s performance attributes. “Water-resistant laminate is far from new for CFL,” Frith stated. “The bulletproof reputation has proven to be a big positive for us since we launched Atroguard more than four years ago. When consumers started shifting toward more waterproof vinyl categories, they did so without really realizing they were accepting a product that was inferior in terms of scratch resistance. No special coatings on vinyl flooring currently on the market come near the performance of a laminate in terms of scratch resistance.”