June 9/16, 2014; Volume 27/Number 29
By Ken Ryan
While laminate flooring at the lower and middle price ranges today is largely the domain of home centers, suppliers that can bring stylish higher-end products and upgrades to the market can still make money for their retail partners, flooring professionals say.
Indeed, the importance of selling quality laminate flooring is essential to ensuring customer satisfaction, repeat buyers, minimal returns and increased profits.
“The reputation of the company you are dealing with is really the key factor for the retailer,” said Bill Dearing, president of the North American Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA).
Whether the product comes from the U.S., Europe or China, it brings with it certain advantages and obstacles.
While the trend is toward more domestic sourcing and manufacturing across all flooring categories, including laminate, Europe and China offer advantages as well.
The advantages U.S. suppliers enjoy is rather obvious: proximity to market, lower transport costs and shorter lead times. These are major benefits as retailers often cannot accurately predict demand, or whether they will need product quickly. In this sense, both Europe and China are at a disadvantage in time-to-market response when selling products in the U.S.; one way to compensate is carrying significantly more inventory than their U.S. counterparts, but that can be costly.
Manufacturers point to three core advantages to sourcing domestically: style/design, service and quality. Mannington, for example, uses local designers who can devote large amounts of time to researching home fashion trends specific to the North American market and then design the products with that consumer in mind.
The ability to deliver product on a timely basis is where domestic production wins. “When we go out of stock on a pattern, we can generally turn it around in days, not the months you have to wait while it goes through production and then sits on a boat coming across the ocean,” said Dan Natkin, director of hardwood and laminate products for Mannington.
Quality control is another potential game-changer for domestic suppliers. China has no third-party organization that oversees the quality control of laminate products the way NALFA and Europe’s EPLF do. For example, to bear the NALFA seal, laminate floors must pass 10 performance tests that evaluate water resistance, exposure to light, stains and whether a floor can be damaged when a large object is dropped on it or a castor chair comes in contact with the floor.
“All of our laminate products are certified to the NALFA standard,” Natkin noted.
There are seven other regular members of NALFA: Columbia Flooring, Kronotex USA, Mohawk, Pergo, Quick-Step, Shaw Industries and Torlys.
Laminate technology emanated from Europe, which it is still viewed by some as the technology epicenter. “The leaders in technology remain in Europe, as they were first in the business,” said Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus, the North American marketing arm of global laminate manufacturer Classen.
Market share for laminate flooring in Europe exceeds 14% of total flooring sales compared to approximately 5% in North America. Furthermore, there is a large volume of major manufacturers in Europe, and the companies that have stayed in business have invested heavily in capital equipment to remain competitive against their peers.
“In our case with Classen, we have invested hundreds of millions of Euro and continue to invest annually in new capital equipment,” Welbourn said. “Improvements in [productivity], design and flexibility—the ability to offer a greater range of products without curbing efficiency—drive our investments.”
Welbourn said North American companies have invested less than their European counterparts and entered the business at a later date, meaning it didn’t make financial sense for them to invest heavily like European laminate companies. “The manufacturing equipment in North America for laminate flooring is efficient but not at the same level of automation and scale that is done in Europe. As an example, the Classen factory, just outside of Berlin, has a theoretical capacity of over 1 billion square feet per annum following our latest expansion. This means we would need between 85% to 95% market share to sell out the factory in North America.”
Executives said Europe has traditionally focused more on production costs than design. But that is changing, Welbourn noted, as innovation in technology such as embossed in register and digital printing make smaller and more efficient production runs possible.
According to Welbourn, it is still a major investment to create a new design, estimating the cost of print cylinders, paper, press plates and inventory at roughly €100,000 ($135,860). “Digital printing has the possibility to change this, but it has not become mainstream yet.”
In the meantime, the laminate industry globally is evolving into a more design savvy field. Pastels and oiled surfaces that were already popular in Europe are now also in demand in the U.S.
Chinese manufacturers are generally one to two years behind American and European trends as Asian companies “wait to see which designs will work in their market—frequently by copying our products,” Natkin explained.
China is well known for being adept at copying things quickly, and product design is no exception. “And with excellent designers available to hire as outside developers, good designs are being made available in China,” Welbourn said.
Chinafloors, which was was founded in 2004 as a Belgian-Taiwanese joint venture based in Shanghai, has since grown into a flooring innovator.
Thomas Baert, co-owner of Chinafloors, said perceptions of China as a producer of cheap product still exist. But, according to Baert, that view is antiquated. “The reality is China has become a leader in specialty and innovative products and product development,” he said. “It is also a reality that we now see manufacturers in other leading countries copying the product ideas and product initiatives coming out of China.”
China does, in fact, have a major labor advantage over the U.S. and Europe (a vast population hired at cheaper labor rates), but a disadvantage in the lack of sophisticated equipment available in the market.
Dearing said there are some large distributors that purchase a great deal of Asian laminate from reputable vendors. “These distributors know their way around and they know what to buy,” he said. If a flooring dealer engages with a Chinese supplier to buy containers, Dearing noted that the margin “better be good, because what happens if something goes wrong?”
NALFA has always advised dealers to know their sources, Dearing said, making sure they are reputable to the point where they will be accountable if something goes wrong. “In this game you are playing with a lot of money; therefore, it is probably a better idea to deal locally, where you have a real sense of what the product is.”
Natkin added, “When and if there is an issue with a product, we stand behind the product and you know who to call. Can you say the same about an imported product?”