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Distribution: Despite threats from LVT/WPC, segment hold its own

November 6/13, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 11

By Ken Ryan

 

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 10.04.14 AMPrior to the explosive growth of LVT/WPC, hardwood was the hot product in the hard surface flooring segment. In fact, 2012 and 2013 saw some of the largest increases in the wood category, with double-digit gains each year.

Since then wood has continued to grow, albeit at a declining rate. Some observers surmise that this slow growth, which in many ways mirrors the overall flooring industry over the past five years, is the new normal. “I think wood growth is going to level off for the industry in the low single digits going forward,” said Torrey Jaeckle, vice president of Jaeckle Distributors, Madison, Wis. “What we are seeing is the wood jobs we are getting are larger average sizes, which has a positive impact on growth. The average order size (in square feet) is up 15% from several years ago. Wider widths and scraped product continue to show steady gains, and while you can get those same looks in a number of different product categories now (LVT, ceramic, laminate), real wood still remains an aspirational product for many consumers and will continue to do so. I think what we are seeing is the designs of other products have become so good now some consumers are becoming more willing to give up the real thing for the wear, maintenance and other benefits these other products offer.”

Another leading distributor suggested wood flooring “will never be back to where it was.” His view is the pace of new home builds is down 60% from its peak in 2007 and will be hard-pressed to match the pre-recession levels anytime soon given the shortage of skilled labor that is impacting construction. “The peak of home building is when wood really shined,” he said. “New homes drive building flooring contractors. I don’t know that the builder market will have exuberant growth but I expect it to climb in the low- to mid-single digits.”

Based on the percentage of business distributors still do with hardwood, they are clearly still bullish on the category. Many of the top 20 have wood portfolios in the 25%-35% range; some are lower; a few much higher. Scores of consumers still want genuine wood, not something that merely replicates it. “What we are noticing is wood styling trends seem to be changing quickly. It’s imperative for us to work with our suppliers to provide the latest and greatest looks,” said Chip Moxley, president of Tingle Flooring, Lees Summit, Mo.

Several wholesalers said they have seen a significant shift toward engineered wood vs. solid, and others have seen a steady increase in their unfinished wood business as well.

For Galleher, William M. Bird, Belknap White, All Tile and others, wood remains a constant. It is the largest segment for each of these wholesalers. In its New England market, Belknap White executives says customers remain passionate about solid wood, whereas in its southern area more engineered is being sold.

Laminate
For most top 20 distributors, laminate represents well south of 10% of their product mix, with several saying it is now 5% or less. “Laminate is taking a severe dive,” one prominent West Coast distributor told FCNews.

Blame it on the success of LVT/WPC, which has eroded virtually every other category. But while some have given up on laminate, there are those who are encouraged by new developments, in particular some of the new water-resistant offerings.

Mannington’s Spill Shield, for example, was cited as a product that offers true differentiated advantages. “Laminate has surprisingly held its own because it has been embraced by the builder channel,” said Jeff Striegel, president of Elias Wilf, Owings Mills, Md. “[The 12-mil format] has made them more comfortable. You can get the wood visuals at a fraction of the cost. It is a much more durable floor from the time it goes in to the time the homeowner takes over [occupancy of the home].”

Distributors who have not abandoned the category have picked up share from those who have. For Herregan Distributors, Eagan, Minn., laminate is still 10% of its business.  “Laminate is showing some positive trends because of stronger moisture warranties,” said Pat Thies, vice president of sales and marketing.

 

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Pergo launches TimberCraft laminate flooring

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 9.31.04 AMCalhoun, Ga.—Pergo has introduced TimberCraft, a laminate flooring with realistic wood visuals.

“Pergo uses patented UltraDef technology to create the realistic natural beauty of TimberCraft,” said Tina Larson, marketing director, Pergo. “The designs of this laminate flooring have a singular style—they imitate the warm and inviting variations of wood and are available in a range of colors from light gray oak to deep hickory.”

TimberCraft’s authentic looks come from deep embossed texturing that gives knots, graining and other character marks real-life depth as well as edge treatments that replicate the rustic and genuine edges of real hardwood planks.

Also, each style in the TimberCraft collection has two times more unique plank designs than ordinary laminate floors, which makes TimberCraft visually more interesting.

Easy-to-clean, stress-free TimberCraft is a perfect floor for busy families. ScratchGuard Advanced Finish protection provides superior scuff, scratch and stain resistance. Cleaning requires just a micro-fiber mop or vacuum.

To honor the nature from which TimberCraft gets inspiration, Pergo is contributing to the National Forest Foundation’s tree-planting program to help plant 5,000 trees in the United States.

“We are excited to be a Tree for Us partner with NFF,” Larson said. “Giving back to the environment is just one illustration of Pergo’s dedication to sustainability.”

For more information, visit pergo.com.

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Laminate: The latest innovations in ‘click’ technologies

September 11/18, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 7

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.03.25 PMWith all the attention being paid to WPC-type floors—and rightfully so—one might think there’s not much happening in the way of innovations with other competing hard surface categories.

That notion could not be further from the truth as evidenced by what’s taking place in the mature-but-still-evolving laminate flooring sector. As several manufacturers continue to fortify their coreboards with materials and proprietary processes designed to better resist water or repel moisture altogether, several companies responsible for developing glueless locking systems are ramping up their own innovations.

Following is an overview of the latest glueless locking system developments along with a summary of how several click system licencees are incorporating those technologies in their respective products.

Innovations4Flooring (I4F)
One company at the forefront of glueless locking systems is Innovations4Flooring (I4F). Its latest innovation—3L TripleLock—provides a unique one-piece, drop-lock installation system for flooring panels that eliminates the need for an additional insert on the short side. The system works with all types of flooring materials, including laminate coreboard panels. According to I4F, the elimination of the additional insert on the short side provides manufacturers with the possibility to improve productivity levels while at the same time reduce their costs and carbon footprint. Furthermore, the 3L TripleLock click system (see illustration) is suitable for existing high-speed production. The good news for installers is shorter laying time. According to I4F, boards featuring 3L TripleLock technology can be installed up to 30% faster than basic click systems. Plus, there are no special tools required for installation.

While the 3L TripleLock system addresses installation issues on the short side of the plank, I4F’s Click4U technology, an angle-system, takes care of the long side. Combined with the drop-lock on the short side, the locking strength is very high. And just like 3L TripleLock, Click4U is suitable for existing high-speed production machinery.

I4F’s technology is already being used on millions of square feet of flooring around the world. “We believe the global flooring market is ready for change, and our innovations will play a significant role in this huge industry transformation,” said John Rietveldt, CEO, I4F.

Unilin Division Technologies
Unilin Division Technologies is the intellectual property unit within the Unilin Group that grants licenses with regard to Unilin’s patent rights.

Unilin provides several different glueless locking system platforms, including Uniclic, UnitFit (Plus and X) and Unipush. Uniclic is the industry’s traditional glueless locking technology for installation of flooring and wall panels, while Unifit Plus and Unifit X are designed for fold-down installation of flooring panels, which includes laminates.

Lastly, Unipush aims to make push-down installations even more intuitive and simple. How it works: By angling the long side of the panel in, the panel can be connected on the short side simply by pushing the panel down on the short side. No additional materials, i.e., inserts, or equipment, are necessary using this system.

To date, Unilin Division Technologies manages more than 2,000 patents in over 300 patent families. Several licensee partners include: Alsapan, AGT, Berry, BHK, Classen, Clarion Industries, Egger Group, Faus, Kronotex, Mannington, Pergo, Shaw, Tarkett, Uniboard and Witex, among others.

Classen, a Unilin licensee, utilizes state-of-the-art locking technology in its Megaloc system. Manufactured in Germany, the Megaloc locking system Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.03.48 PMis DIY friendly and makes installation simple and seamless. In illustration: A laminate floor with a Megaloc system has a locking mechanism on the short side. The panels are simply dropped down into the joint of the previously laid row. As planks are lowered, a special patented insert/lock, located on the short end of the laminate, will lock the plank in place. (A locking-clip in the short grooves allows the next plank to be locked directly from above.) Once the panel is installed into place, the locking element also locks and a stable connection is created. All the installer has to do is press along the short side when he hears the click.

Other well-known lines featuring Unilin click technology is the Majestic collection from Quick-Step and Mohawk-branded laminates. Equipped with the patented Uniclic system, the products allow a quick and easy installation for floor layers. The products also score points in the aesthetics department. Majestic, for example, comes in a variety of decors from vintage/reclaimed to rustic and smooth and features surface texturing designed to mimic real wood floors. The line also touts resistance to water and scratching.

“Based on original wooden planks, the R&D team uses innovative techniques to develop a product that combines natural beauty with the practicality of high-end laminate,” said Ruben Desmet, general manager laminate, Unilin.

Uniboard is another Unilin licensee. The company’s lamiante flooring product range includes both 12mm and 14mm offerings, each featuring the “Bestlock” glueless locking technology. The end result, according to the company, is a streamlined installation anchored by strong locking joints.

Välinge
Välinge continues to demonstrate its knack for innovation with the latest iteration of its signature 5G locking system. Known as 5G-i, the new system is designed, in part, to expand the installation options for a variety of new floating plank flooring products hitting the market.

How it works: Slits underneath the groove side of the panel provide flexibility so the tongue side—when pressed downward in a single-action motion—clicks into place.

While the system is new, it doesn’t represent a difficult learning curve for installers. In fact, floor layers don’t have to learn a whole new procedure when installing the panels at all. Installers can take it apart the same way they would with the traditional 5G, the company said. Another advantage of the system is it reduces costs (no need for plastic tongues or insertion machines).

Välinge Innovation’s patent portfolio comprises more than 1,600 granted patents and a global license base of over 200 licensees. The company’s range of locking systems provides an industry standard for installing floating floors. Valinge licensee holders include: Armstrong, Abel Laminati, Alloc, Berry Floor, BHK, CFL, Classen, Faus, Mannington, Pergo, Shaw Floors, Swiss Krono and Tarkett, Uniboard and Witex, among others. For instance, all of Mannington’s current laminate collections (Restoration, Revolutions, Coordinations and Value Lock) can be laid down via a click-lock mechanism for fast, secure installations. While the company strongly recommends using trained, professional installers to achieve the best long-term performance of its various flooring products, it advises DIYers to follow all directions contained in the Installation Guidelines brochure.

Shaw’s VersaLock and LocNPlace patented locking technology securely installs laminate flooring panels on all four sides. This single-action locking system enables installation in a snap, literally, without messy, slow-to-dry glue.

Swiss Krono, which markets the American Concepts brand, is a licensee of locking systems developed by both Unilin and Valinge. The vast majority of these systems are designed for private-label applications.

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NALFA celebrates 20 years of leadership, innovation

September 11/18, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 7

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 2.30.49 PMNew York—Current and long-time members of the North American Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA) convened here earlier this month to mark a significant milestone—20 years in the business. The event included an update on the standards-setting group’s objectives and goals, a recap of the state of the laminate flooring industry and, most importantly, the unveiling of a new website more indicative of 21st century technology.

The improved website—nalfa.com—sports a brand new look and feel with updated content and improved mobile access. It is designed to enhance the experience of consumers, trade professionals and industry members.

“We are excited about the redesign of our website,” said Dan Natkin, NALFA president. “We have worked hard to make the website user friendly for consumers who are researching their floor options while continuing to be the voice for the laminate flooring industry. We are proud of the final product.”

A few highlights of the revamped site:

Fresh new look. Reflecting a more modern 21st century feel, the new-look nalfa.com site—which features the NALFA 20th anniversary logo atop the homepage—provides easier navigation by using the top tabs or clicking on the photos. “Consumers can also view all images on one site instead of clicking through to the various members’ sites,” said Barbara June, who in addition to handling legal/marketing matters for Swiss Krono also serves on the website committee.

More consumer oriented. More consumers are conducting research online before they buy. To that end, the site reflects the customer as opposed to NALFA corporate.

Better responsiveness. “We didn’t have a responsive, mobile-friendly website—now we do,” June stated.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 2.31.18 PMThe next step in the site’s evolution, according to June, will entail a search tool that lists all certified laminate installers by state.

“I would like to thank all the members for their time and input, especially Dan [Natkin], Travis Bass [executive vice president, Swiss Krono] and Roger Farabee [senior vice president, laminate and hardwood, Mohawk]. They went above and beyond the call of duty.”

State of the industry

In his address to members and guests in attendance, Natkin provided an overview of the laminate category in the U.S. “In 20 years it has become a $1 billion-plus industry. Members in this industry employ hundreds of people who are involved in the production of laminate flooring, and

the retailers and installers employ thousands who service the end customer.”

He also reminded attendees how the category has withstood intense pressure from competing flooring segments, particularly wood, LVT and, now, WPC.

“People forget laminate is one of the most environmentally sound products—and that’s coming from a wood guy. Laminate comprises 95% renewable content.”

More importantly, Natkin cited the high level of cooperation of NALFA membership, which includes the likes of Arauco, Armstrong, DMX Underlayment, IVC U.S., Kronospan, MP Global Products, Mannington, Mohawk, Pak-Lite, Pergo, Quick-Step, Sealed Air Floor Care Products, Selit Foam Solutions, Shaw Floors, Swiss Krono and Torlys. These companies, he said, represent the vast majority of laminate flooring sold in North America.

“There is a higher level of engagement in NALFA than any other trade organization in which I’m involved,” Natkin stated. “And as we enter our third decade of existence we’re continuing to serve as the police of the industry. We’re unique in that we are led by the members. The individual voices come together as the collective voice of NALFA. Each leader in this room dedicates an amazing amount of time, effort, energy and passion toward advancing our message around the goals of standardization and the benefits of laminate flooring to both the consumer and the industry.”

Not the same old laminate
“Both regular and associate NALFA members are continuing to invest millions of dollars in the production of laminate flooring in support of continued demand among consumers,” Natkin said. He cited a number of innovations, including water-resistant coreboard technologies, improved visuals and surface technologies. “It’s not the laminate flooring of 20 years ago,” he told attendees.

Mohawk’s Farabee agreed, adding the group is focusing on building a platform for the future. “It’s our job to remind people of the incredible benefits this category offers. It’s a wood-based product; it’s the most durable hard surface product outside of ceramic; it’s the easiest to install; it’s the most cost effective product on an installed basis; and it offers the most realistic visuals of any ‘replica’ product on the market. For consumers today, the potential for future sales is greater, particularly as we focus on new aspects such as moisture resistance. There’s a role for the laminate category to play with respect to the new products that are starting to emerge.”

 

Tribute to a colleague and a friend

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 2.33.22 PMNew York—The 20th anniversary celebration of the North American Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA) came to a close with a touching tribute to Bill Dearing, the man who served as its president from the group’s inception in 1997 until his passing in late 2016. Dearing, who not only presided over NALFA’s evolution but was also instrumental in bringing the Pergo brand to the U.S. market, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 75.

“We are members today because of Bill,” said Peter Barretto, president of Torlys, a long-time NALFA primary member. “He was a class act and gave to everyone in this room. He was the glue.”

Dan Natkin, current NALFA president who also serves as vice president of hardwood and laminate at Mannington, concurred. “Bill was always there for you if you needed anything. I considered him a colleague and a good friend.”

Natkin credited Dearing for bringing standardization to the laminate industry, eliminating the “Wild West” mentality that existed around claims. “He lived and breathed laminate flooring; he was passionate about it. He became synonymous with laminate flooring.”

Jack Boesch, marketing director for MP Global Products, a long-time NALFA associate member, recalled his early interactions with Dearing. “We were the first company outside the flooring manufacturers to get involved with NALFA, so naturally I asked a lot of questions about the laminate category. Bill welcomed me with open arms.”

Lars von Kantzow, former CEO of Pergo, hired Dearing in 1990 to help launch the Pergo brand in the U.S. “Dearing was literally Pergo’s first sales rep for Pergo,” he said (FCNews, Oct. 24/31, 2016). “He mapped out our distribution strategy and made the first contacts. He brought in retailers Carpet One and Color Tile, and then distributors such as Misco Shawnee, Bayard and William Bird. He was absolutely instrumental in putting Pergo on the map.”

Many industry members and associates were on hand for the tribute, including Roula Dearing, Bill’s wife of many years.

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Laminate: Certified installer programs give dealers an edge

July 31/Aug. 7: Volume 31, Issue 4

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 11.49.08 AMThe upside to laminate flooring’s popularity in the U.S. over the past 20 years is more consumers have become very familiar with the product—from how it’s constructed to the way it is primarily installed. The “downside,” however, is that high comfort level has encouraged more renters and homeowners to install the product themselves, cutting into a profit center for specialty retailers.

Thanks to certified installation training programs, however, retailers have an opportunity to recoup some of that business lost to the DIY customer base. The logic being, homeowners might have a greater sense of security and confidence knowing the person installing their laminate floors has been trained and certified in a particular area.

Armstrong Floors, which offers comprehensive certified training programs for virtually all of the categories in which it operates—laminate included—still believes there’s a need for professionally trained laminate floor layers. To that end, the company offers a combined laminate/hardwood training program conducted over the course of three days. There’s also a one-day laminate certification event held at its installation school in Lancaster, Pa. The company also has distributor trainer partners that are qualified to administer the same certification and training programs.

“Our certification is standardized, whether it’s conducted in conjunction with our distribution network or here at our installation school,” said Todd Weldon, who heads Armstrong’s installation school and personally conducts many of the training classes held at the company’s headquarters. “Basically we begin with an estimating and layout project where we have the participants calculate the material they will need as well as waste. We do that for the material as well as for transitions and for trim. We grade them on how successfully they do that, and we check to see they have the proper amount of expansion.”

Beyond the mechanical skills, participants are also evaluated according to a written test. (Trainees need to earn at least 80 out of 100 points to get certified.) Once they pass, Armstrong provides installers with a laminated card showing they are certified.

That certification is valid for three years; an open book test is required for re-certification.

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 11.49.02 AMRenate Keares, sales training manager, Armstrong Flooring, cites the benefits for retailers and their installation crews, as well as consumers. “If an installation fails due to a certified installer’s error, Armstrong will supply materials up to $1,000 for that installation. The labor, obviously, would be the responsibility of the retailer/installer.”

The benefits don’t end there. Dealers who certify their installers are noted as such on the section of Armstrong’s website that lists dealer locations. “The sponsoring dealer gets flagged on our website for that certification, so there’s a benefit for the retailer for sponsoring dealers as well as the installer,” Keares explained. “The Armstrong website is the most trafficked flooring site, so the benefit to the retailer is their site comes up first if they have certified installers. They literally rise to the top.”

Dealers who have completed Armstrong’s certification—not just for laminate but the family of hard surface products—can attest to the positive impact on the business. Kevin Carnes, vice president, McSwain Carpets & Floors, Cincinnati, is one of them.

“Going through the certification process changes the installer’s thought process,” he explained. “When you send a hardwood guy to a laminate certification, he finds he can now do rigid core. That expertise extends to other categories, which is better for the installer and the retailer.”

McSwain Carpets coordinated with a local Armstrong distributor to conduct the installation and certification training program for its crews. The exercise, according to the company, reinforced the importance of ongoing instruction. “I wasn’t born in the flooring industry—just like many young people coming into the industry,” Carnes noted. “That’s why continued education is crucial.”

While Carnes believes consumers may give more weight and consideration to retailers who hire certified installers, there’s more work involved. “Customers definitely use the web in their research. It drives the consumers toward the retailers who have the certification, but it doesn’t necessarily seal the deal.”

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 11.49.15 AMOther prominent retailers who have arranged for their installation crews to get certified on Armstrong’s various hard surface products—including laminate—vouch for the influence structured training has on the consumer. At Phoenix-based Baker Bros., for instance, routine installation training for employees and subcontractors alike is the norm. “All the installers we use are Armstrong certified,” said Phil Koufidakis, president and owner. “We also have a field technician who spot checks all the jobs our installers perform. They are our last line of defense, so it’s important to get it right.”

Armstrong is not the only manufacturer that offers comprehensive, structured training programs for its installers. Mohawk, Shaw and Quick-Step, to name a few, also work with their retail partners to provide instruction on a host of products—not just laminate but across the hard surface spectrum.

During a recent National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA) meeting, Quick-Step held a special session to encourage its retail partners to make installation a stronger part of their business. “As an industry leader in technology, Quick-Step sets our retailers and installers up for success by featuring superior installation systems in all products,” said Jon England, vice president of independent distribution, Mohawk laminate and hardwood, North America. “As retailers work with their subcontractors to make installation a stronger part of their overall total flooring purchase, the retailers can rest assured the quality of the installation systems in Quick-Step products gives installers everything they need to achieve a floor that’s stunning.”

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Laminate: Sourcing shift changes import/domestic dynamic

June 26: Volume 32, Issue 1

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.32.26 AMA gradual build-up of stateside production and capacity of laminate flooring in 2016—combined with an increase in European-made product—was partially neutralized by the continued drop-off in imports from China that began in earnest in early 2015. The end result was a category that grew marginally in terms of value but slightly more with respect to volume.

FCNews research showed U.S. laminate flooring sales eked out $1.154 billion in sales last year, an uptick of just 1.5%—the lowest rate of increase of any hard surface category. Volume-wise, the category grew at a rate of 2% to 1.054 billion square feet—a reflection of the rise in shipments from Germany plus the increased domestic capacity that came online toward the latter part of the year. This represents a slight improvement over the 2014-15 period, which saw laminate volume decline to the tune of 3%. Sales-wise, laminate revenues grew a mere 0.17% over the same year-ago period.

All in all, things haven’t changed that much from, say, five years ago. In 2011, for example, U.S. laminate flooring sales were about $1.094 and 1.02 billion square feet. These figures represent increases of just 5.4% and 3.3% in terms of sales and volume, respectively, compared to 2016.

The larger story—even amidst the slight increases the category has seen since 2011 and year to date—is its decline in terms of the overall share of hard surface activity. In 2011, for example, laminate flooring represented 16.9% of all hard surface sales and a little over 14% in terms of volume; last year, the category’s percentage of hard surface sales slipped to 9.3% in value and 13.4% with respect to volume. Meanwhile, competing products such as resilient and ceramic tile grew their respective shares of the hard surface market over that time period.

Industry observers acknowledge the category’s mediocre performance in 2016.

“We estimate the market was somewhat flat between 2015 and 2016,” said Dan Natkin, vice president of hardwood and laminates, Mannington. “We show the total category was actually down about 2%, in both units and dollars.”

At the same time, Natkin acknowledges increased activity on the home front compared to the dramatic pullback from China that started in 2015 and continued into 2016. “The interesting thing is, with some of the new operations in the U.S.—and new capacity coming online—we think U.S. production actually picked up some share in 2016.”

David Holt, senior vice president, Mohawk Industries, can attest to the shift. Over the past year the company has been investing heavily in its laminate flooring operations in North Carolina with plans to start up an entirely new plant in the fourth quarter. “We are adding capacity when others are scaling back,” he said. “We believe in domestic manufacturing, and we’re investing in various assets to make sure we maintain a leadership role. This will increase our laminate capacity as we continue to grow.”

The changing import vs. domestic production dynamic is palpable—so much so that many industry observers are seeing an almost “about-face” turn with respect to the traditional laminate product mix. While FCNews research showed the share of domestic production of laminate rising from 60% to 64% in 2016 (compared to imports’ market share decline from 41% to 36%), some believe that ratio is even more lopsided.

“The ratio appears to be shifting in favor of domestically produced laminate due to the increase in capacity that came online in 2016,” said Drew Hash, vice president, hard surface category management, Shaw Floors. “We estimate closer to a 70/30 split between domestic and imported laminate, respectively, with the likelihood of closing in on a 75/25 split for 2017 as domestic capacity continues to increase.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.32.31 AMTravis Bass, executive vice president, Swiss Krono, has the domestic/import split closer to 60/40, respectively. But even he’s in agreement that German producers increased their share the past year. “Europe has shifted from 14% to 19% while China fell from 26% to 21%.”

To some industry experts, the dramatic drop in imports from China reflects a paradigm shift. “What we’re seeing is a preference for European and domestic supply,” said Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus, which has manufacturing operations in Germany. “As the domestic suppliers add capacity, the volume of imports will go down and the ratio of import vs. domestic will be reduced.”

Not everyone, however, believes the full impact of all this additional capacity is being felt at present. Some industry experts feel the biggest ripples are yet to come. “It really hasn’t had an impact yet because most of that new capacity has not yet come online,” said Roger Farabee, senior vice president, laminate and hardwood at Mohawk, which counts the Quick-Step brand among its assets. “We’re certainly seeing companies putting more capacity in the U.S., going after all the big box customers in particular. This will continue as that capacity comes online.”

In some cases, this new capacity simply displaces product that had previously been made in Europe by those same companies that are now producing domestically, Farabee stated. This phenomenon, he believes, will put pressure on the remaining producers both in the U.S. and in Europe to be able to compete not only on price but also in terms of product performance and visuals. “It will be interesting to watch because there’s a lot of new capacity coming online in a category that’s not really growing. However, we do expect some price pressure.”

Sales by channel
Just as the mix of laminate sources has changed in recent years, so has the sales activity as defined by distribution channel. FCNews research shows the specialty retail sector accounts for roughly one-third of category sales. What’s more, observers say, many of the laminate flooring products sold at this channel represent thicker, higher-margin items not typically sold at the average home center or mass merchant—a bright spot for the independent or aligned floor covering dealer.

Some observers feel specialty retail’s share was a bit higher than that. “We feel it might be as high as about 35%-36% given the growth in new home construction,” Mannington’s Natkin explained. Shaw’s Hash agreed, citing the company’s internal research that puts specialty retailers’ share of the business in more or less the same vicinity.

Despite this optimism, however, the fact remains home centers and mass merchants still account for the lion’s share of laminate sales. And, according to FCNews research, that share only grows with each passing year. In 2015, for example, home centers’ share of laminate flooring sales was about 45%. Last year that number grew closer to 50%. Throw in warehouse clubs, home décor outlets and the like, and that number balloons to more than 60%.

When it comes to actual profit margins, however, specialty retailers stand to emerge as the biggest beneficiaries. A cursory review of national home center laminate flooring pricing finds much of the products advertised target the $2.49-and-below range, while many specialty retailers and buying group dealers concentrate on the mid-to-upper end of the price spectrum (those products retailing in the $3.99-$4.99 realm). While many home centers can afford to draw consumers in to their stores using entry-level products as “loss leaders” with the hope that shoppers will browse and spend more money in other departments, specialty retailers—already operating on razor-thin margins—simply cannot win at that game.

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.32.46 AM“We have had great success with our mid-level laminates meeting a great variety of customer needs and wants,” said Char Smith, manager of Grand Junction, Colo.-based Gallagher’s Flooring, a top-selling Quick-Step dealer. “We try not to compete with box stores on any product. For the most part, they are selling to people who are only interested in a price point and have no idea or concern regarding quality of product. In flooring you get what you pay for—just like anything else.”

End-use activity
Given laminate flooring’s accessible price points, it should come as no surprise that the product remains a perennial favorite in residential replacement applications.

FCNews research shows the sector continued to generate the lion’s share of laminate sales—approximately 85%—last year. That’s up slightly from 82% the year prior but down from just over 88% in 2011.

“Laminate flooring has always been strongest in residential replacement, and this continued in 2016,” Welbourn said. “We feel there has been an increase in new construction with better design by all laminate producers.”

Meanwhile, FCNews research shows new construction accounted for roughly 12% of sales last year, up from about 9% in 2015. By comparison, new construction accounted for about 6.8% of laminate sales in 2011.

“We see a rapidly growing acceptance of laminate products in new home construction,” Mannington’s Natkin said. He believes this sector may have accounted for as much as 15% of laminate sales last year. “Laminates have begun to take the place of entry-level hardwood in this sector.”

Morgan Hafer, laminate product manager, Armstrong, also sees activity in the new home construction sector as more builders look to laminate as an entry-level product. On the commercial front, she said laminate also has a place “because it looks and feels like traditional hardwood, but has the durability attribute necessary for Main Street businesses.” FCNews research shows laminate flooring continued to cede commercial market share to competing categories, presumably LVT and, now, WPC. Statistics also show the contract commercial and Main Street markets combined accounted for just 2.4% of category sales in 2016—down from 4.2% in 2011.

“There will be variation by segment, but laminate in general will continue to lose share to categories like LVT and innovative new multi-layered flooring products,” Hafer added.

Indeed, the well-documented success of waterproof floors, LVT and rigid-core products has forced laminate manufacturers to step up their game. “There is no doubt these hot categories have stolen growth from the laminate category and others,” Inhaus’ Welbourn stated. “However, laminate is in a much better cost position than these plastic-based categories and is able to deliver some of the best value in the flooring business. This fact, along with continued innovation in the laminate category, has kept it competitive.”

As consumer preferences shift toward more hard surfaces being incorporated into the home, resilient flooring has seen an uptick in market share. The challenge for laminate flooring manufacturers, executives say, lies in improving upon water-resistant technology. This was evidenced by the various performance demonstrations conducted at Surfaces 2017. Proponents say it is only fitting given the innovations that originally inspired the creation of the laminate sector (i.e., improved performance in regards to moisture and general everyday use). Suppliers say enhancing these features certainly has created greater value for laminate flooring. “Additional focus on design continues in laminate with further enhanced textures and high-definition printing continuing to create the best designs the laminate category has ever been able to offer,” Welbourn added.

Many concede that laminate—much like other flooring products—has lost some market share to WPC. But from the consumer’s perspective, suppliers believe laminate is still a viable product that’s relatively inexpensive and offers several key attributes end users are looking for—realistic-looking patterns and design with proven performance. The fact that the U.S. laminate industry is still a one-billion-dollar-plus category is also something worth noting.

“We see continued growth for the laminate category at a pace between 2% and 5%,” Welbourn said. “We estimate the flooring category as a whole will have a higher rate of growth as the housing sector continues to recover.”

The optimism suppliers feel is supported by the investments they are making in manufacturing and the capacity they are building. For instance, Kronospan USA is demonstrating its commitment to the U.S. marketplace by investing and building manufacturing plants. In 2015 the company purchased Shippenville, Pa.-based Clarion Boards and Clarion Laminates, which produces medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and high-density fiberboard (HDF) panels as well as laminate flooring at the same site. Kronospan already operates a facility in Eastaboga, Ala., a site where the company manufactures MDF and HDF for manufacturers of laminate flooring, furniture, store fixtures, moldings, doors and other architectural applications.

A fully integrated supplier, Kronospan also produces specialty and decorative paper as well as other associated value-added products. More recently, Kronsopan USA completed the construction of a laminate facility in Oxford, Ala. Once fully operational, this facility will add even more capacity to fuel distributor and retailer demands.

Kronospan is not alone. The aforementioned investments Mohawk is making in its stateside laminate manufacturing operations is another prime example. “We believe in laminates as much as we believe in engineered wood,” Holt said. “With our hard surface offerings we service the builder trade as well as retail, so time to market is critical. And the only way you can say you service that builder market and retail market in a timely fashion is through domestic manufacturing.”

Not to be outdone, Swiss Krono continues to expand its production capabilities. Last summer the company broke ground on a $230 million high-density fiberboard mill and laminate flooring production expansion. This expansion—which will bring more than 100 new highly-skilled technical and management jobs to the Barnwell area—will allow Swiss Krono to produce 300,000 cubic-meters of HDF per year, which the company will use for laminate flooring manufacturing operations and sell to furniture, cabinet, fixture, door and other wood-based manufacturers. In total, the project will increase the company’s annual laminate flooring capacity by an additional 8 million square-meters.

This latest investment by Swiss Krono comes on top of a $30 million infusion the manufacturer’s parent company made several years ago to build a melamine resin paper treatment plant in Barnwell, S.C. “All of this [supports] our move to be vertically integrated,” Bass explained. “Heretofore, we had outsourced our HDF production as well as our paper treatment.”

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Aspecta, Wilsonart team up at NeoCon

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 9.40.15 AMNorwalk, Conn.—Metroflor will join forces with Wilsonart to provide the company’s Aspecta Ten LVT flooring in the Wilsonart booth at NeoCon. The Aspecta Ten Runyon Oak design in Ashen—a neutral-gray, raw ranch look with a comfortable “denim jacket” appeal—will complement Wilsonart’s new Contract Laminate.

Metroflor’s Aspecta Ten also aims to make staff and visitors’ time in the booth comfortable underfoot with its ISOCORE technology. The proprietary ISOCORE rigid core is comfortable and quiet, according to the company, in addition to being durable enough to stand up to busy NeoCon foot traffic.

“Wilsonart and Aspecta by Metroflor are both in the business of creating innovative surfaces, with the common goal of creating fashion-forward products coupled with realism and performance for the commercial marketplace,” said Russ Rogg, president and CEO, Metroflor. “We are delighted to share our strengths and complement each other at NeoCon.”

Wilsonart is also looking forward to the collaborative opportunity, according to Natalia Smith, design manager at Wilsonart. “Runyon Oak adds a sophisticated rustic quality to any space. In a contemporary or modern setting where the environment can feel cold, Runyon Oak infuses comfort and warmth. It can really work everywhere from boutiques to beachside bistros, supporting a welcoming design intent. We love the look of Aspecta Ten in our Wilsonart booth as we showcase our new Quartz, Solid Surface and Wilsonart Traceless fingerprint-resistant laminate designs.”

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Laminate: In mature category, specialty retailers can still compete

May 22/29, 2017: Volume 31, Issue 25

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.53.16 AMIn the perennial slugfest with the home centers and big discount merchants, specialty floor covering retailers who sell laminate continue to find ways to differentiate themselves from low-end providers. Successful strategies range from focusing on higher-end goods (12mm or thicker), promoting private-label branded products that can’t be shopped around and providing professional installation services.

A prime case in point of an independent flooring retailer who has achieved success in the laminate category by adhering to some of these principals is Fred Wee, owner of Interiors and Textiles, Palo Alto, Calif. Already predisposed to higher end, luxury flooring goods (he sells more wool than nylon-based carpet products, for example), he tends to avoid laminate flooring products that retail at the lower end of the spectrum.

“Historically, laminate was not a big category for us primarily because it’s not a luxury good—it’s a synthetic product,” Wee explained “But laminate’s appeal is primarily its functional capabilities, durability and ease of maintenance. Also, the product itself has improved tremendously over the past few years, both in terms of the looks and its performance.”

While salespeople at Interiors and Textiles typically don’t lead with laminate when prospecting (natural products like hardwood provide much higher margins, Wee notes), the retailer makes sure he is ready to show customers samples and installed laminate floors in case the shopper asks for it. “The value proposition of laminate still exists in spades,” he said.

Other flooring dealers are finding they, too, are having success selling laminates without leading with it at the point of sale or by heavily promoting the category via marketing and advertising. Char Smith, manager of Gallagher’s Flooring, Grand Junction, Colo., shares her secrets to success: “Our goal with any flooring is to match the correct product with the customer’s needs, wants and budget.”

Gallagher’s has seen particularly good results with its mid-level laminates. “With the fantastic graphics and looks available we can almost always find something to fit our customer’s vision,” Smith explained. “We do not promote laminate any more than our other products. However, because it is such a versatile product, it is something we go to often.”

More importantly for Smith and dealers like her, focusing on the mid-to-upper-end laminate tiers provides a buffer against the home centers and big boxes—many of which aggressively promote laminate flooring in the $0.99 to $1.29 range.

“We try not to compete with box stores on any product,” Smith explained. “For the most part they are selling to people who are only interested in a price point and have no idea or concern regarding quality of product. We have chosen to deal with laminate suppliers that produce quality products.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.53.09 AMWhen educating consumers on the differences between the various grades of laminates available, Smith goes beyond the subject of price. “In coming to my store, the customer is dealing with staff that has been trained in all the products we carry and has the expertise in proper installation and problem solving. We believe that is worth its weight in gold when it comes to customers who are looking for straightforward answers regarding laminate and its benefits and limitations.”

Interiors and Textiles’ Wee employs a similar strategy when positioning his laminate products vs. what’s sold at discount merchants. “I simply don’t sell the comparable products to the home centers. My laminates cost me more than $1.99.”

Laminate flooring suppliers are well aware of the inherent channel conflict. To that end, they are doing their part to ensure specialty retailers can compete (profitably) against the big boxes while still serving a broad array of consumers.

“We’ve always tried to create differentiated products in terms of style and performance so those products can compete with one another in the marketplace,” said Roger Farabee, senior vice president, laminate and wood, Mohawk. “So far that strategy has worked pretty well. We’ve not only been able to do that with respect to the quality of the product itself but also with respect to our brands that have meaning to the consumer and the trade. It is a challenge, but that’s why we have so many products in the pipeline.”

Armstrong is taking a similar approach. “We are committed to continued innovations in performance and design to not only compete but also give specialty retailers more products that can’t be shopped at the big boxes,” said Morgan Hafer, product manager.

Manufacturers, by and large, are stepping up their game by incorporating enhanced features that translate into higher-margin opportunities. Case in point is the new Repel line from Shaw Floors. “Repel has been specially designed to take laminate to the next level in water-resistance technology,” said Carr Newton, vice president, hardwood and laminates. “It’s the hottest revelation to hit the laminate industry in a decade.”

Others agree that ongoing enhancement is the key. “Continued innovation in the laminate category has kept it competitive,” said Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus. “We see continued growth for the category as a whole.”

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Torlys launches new CorkWood product

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 11.30.30 AMToronto, Canada—Torlys has launched a new type of flooring called CorkWood. The product is a specially engineered floor that has been created to bring together all the best features and benefits of other types of floors in one superior, all-inclusive product—combining the look of wood, the durability of laminate and the comfort of cork.

The top layer of Torlys CorkWood is made of a high-definition digitally printed compressed layer of cork in realistic patterns of oak and walnut. This new program is offered in two collections: CorkWood Designer, featuring extra-long 6’ planks in nine on-trend colors, and CorkWood Elite, in planks almost 4’ long and in five colors.

CorkWood is engineered with a durable HDF smart core for dent resistance and a 3mm (Designer) or 2.5mm (Elite) thick top layer of compressed cork. The polyurethane finish is equivalent to AC4 laminate and the sophisticated printing process makes CorkWood more fade resistant than its traditional counterparts. This means it will perform like laminate and retain the hardwood look for years to come.

Along with the compressed cork top layer, the new product includes the Torlys CorkPlus attached underlay for added warmth and sound insulation. The CorkPlus underlay is infused with Microban antimicrobial product protection that inhibits the growth of mold and mildew. This program, along with all other Torlys cork collections, is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, ensuring the wood and cork used in the manufacturing process comes from responsibly managed forests.

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Laminate: Taking a page (or two) from wood’s playbook

Emerging design trends mirror those of competing category

April 10/17, 2017: Volume 31, Issue 22

By Reginald Tucker

 

It’s no secret that laminate flooring suppliers are focusing their product design and development efforts on more accurately mimicking natural materials, especially hardwood. (A cursory review of the various laminate designs and patterns introduced at Surfaces bears this out.) But what is newsworthy is the rapid pace of new product development in printing, surface texturing and plating technology as well as the techniques employed to achieve a much higher level of realism with each successive product iteration.

Here are some of the main cues laminate suppliers are taking from hardwood’s design playbook.

Going wider, longer
Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 11.29.57 AMOne of the main trends that has carried over from hardwood to laminate is the move toward wider widths and longer planks. With the advent of more open living spaces, designers are utilizing these emerging formats to convey the illusion of bigger rooms. Laminate suppliers are not only addressing these trends from an aesthetic standpoint, but the wider, longer boards also facilitate faster installation by covering more surface area.

Case in point is the new Veriluxe line from Quick-Step. The product, which is available in 8-inch-wide planks in lengths exceeding 80 inches, is designed for consumers looking to fill these larger central living spaces with bigger-format products, according to Roger Farabee, senior vice president, laminate and hardwood, Mohawk Flooring North America. “It’s a fashion-based line that is on pace with the latest trends in premium hardwood designs and home décor.”

Another wide-plank look reflecting a high-end, upscale looks is Shaw’s Pinnacle Port line from the Repel collection—a 5.43 x 48-inch long offering in five, on-trend colors. The line also features light handscraped texturing along with the company’s water-resistance technology.

“With Repel, the look of reclaimed hardwood in a range of wide-plank visuals and rich colors becomes an easy choice,” said Carr Newton, vice president, hardwood and laminate. “Today’s consumer demands functionality without sacrificing style or comfort and water-resistant flooring is a top concern of many active households. Repel has been specially designed to take laminate to the next level in water-resistance technology and is the hottest revelation to hit the laminate industry in a decade.”

Performance enhancements
In much the same way that advancements in chemistry and manufacturing processes have vastly bolstered hardwood’s performance, ongoing improvements Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 11.29.52 AMin the way laminate flooring is produced have allowed suppliers to boost product performance. This includes everything from improved scuff and scratch resistance to finish technologies that resist fading as well as special treatments to the coreboards to provide water resistance.

“The water-resistance story has added value to the laminate sector,” said Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus. “Although this story is not new—the initial innovations that originally created the laminate sector have improved performance in regards to moisture and general everyday use. Enhancing these features has certainly created greater value for the category.”

To ensure the integrity of its laminate products from top to bottom, Inhaus utilizes several proprietary technologies, including liquid layer technology, which merges two traditionally separate steps involving the overlay, decorative and underlay papers in the laminate manufacturing process into a single production line. According to the company, this results in a more time- and energy-efficient production process.

Beyond the core structure of the product, laminate suppliers are also applying a high level of innovation to the face of the product—those layers that constitute the design paper and wear layer—to more accurately duplicate the look of genuine hardwood. It’s an area in which Mohawk is focusing much of its R&D efforts.

“Mohawk invests back into its facilities to support the laminate product category,” which is still really strong for us,” said Tammy Perez, director of hard surface brands. “We are continuing to innovate and invest in our plant to make these laminate products better.”

The fruits of those investments are readily evident in newly unveiled offerings that aim to convey realistic, stylish visuals. Among them: Painted Charm, a chestnut visual featuring a glazed, painted style; Reclaimed Spirit, a subtle, distressed look that recalls painted and washed floors; Wood Vision, which conveys the look of reclaimed barnwood; and Artistic Creation, which boasts high shade variation and saw-cut distressing.

“Mohawk’s laminate flooring collections capture hot, high-styled visuals inspired by the natural characteristics of hardwood,” Perez said. The visuals are so realistic that dealers who first saw the products installed at the company’s booth at Surfaces couldn’t make the distinction between the new laminates and real hardwood. “One of the new products—Wooded Escape—which features wire brushing, double staining and knots was on the floor at the booth; everyone who saw it thought it was a real hardwood floor.”

Suppliers that play in both the hardwood and laminate flooring categories believe they are uniquely positioned to leverage that design and manufacturing expertise. Case in point is Armstrong, which boasts one of the industry’s broadest selection of products across various hard surface platforms.

“Our premium laminate business is strong, driven by our cutting-edge designs, realistic looks and great performing products,” said Morgan Hafer, product manager-laminate. “Buyers love our laminate floors because they are able to get premium hardwood visuals that are not necessarily available as an option in natural woods due to the high cost or impracticality.”

Rustic, reclaimed all the rage
“Shape is clearly increasing as a trend—i.e., multiple widths and lengths, but other unique visuals are also driving the laminate category,” said Dan Natkin, vice president, wood and laminate, Mannington. High on the list are new looks that tap into the trend of natural, reclaimed woods in muted, less saturated colors.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 11.30.02 AMMannington is addressing this demand via the addition of three new flooring designs into its popular Restoration collection: Historic Oak, which has been expanded to include slate, a warm gray hue that also features realistic saw marks, nail holes and wood grain variation; Blacksmith Oak, an 8-inch-wide European white oak look that evokes images of gently time-worn flooring in French chateaus; and Seaview Pine, which aims to capture the aged look of rustic pine that has been weathered by sand, wind and sea.

Laminate suppliers are going to great lengths (pardon the pun) to get their hands on original materials that might serve as a source of inspiration for a design that could be used on mass scale. Such is the case at Kronospan, where Mark Bircham, head of design and product management, scours the globe in search of that rare find. As a case in point, he cited decades-old hickory beams uncovered in a dilapidated structure in rural Pennsylvania.

“Sometimes we can get our hands on real reclaimed material to use for inspiration in product development,” he said. “The hickory beams we found were aged but clean, so our carpenters were able to make planks from the material. Then they applied different effects such as chisel and chatter marks to get the look we wanted. We were then able to scan the planks into the computer and render several laminate designs.”

These high-tech touches—some of which are proprietary—allow manufacturers to tweak various elements to achieve the desired effect. “Our hickory product, which is selling well globally, features a multi-gloss level finish with a nice soft screen effect on it,” Bircham told FCNews. “The goal was not to make it ‘bling-bling’ shiny, but add just enough gloss and dimension to capture the different light effects on the floor as you move around. This multi-gloss look across the plank was designed to mimic the natural attributes of real wood.”

Climbing the walls
Laminate is not only tracing wood in terms of look, feel and performance. The category is also following hardwood “up the walls,” so to speak. Venerable hardwood brands such as DuChateau, Provenza and Johnson Hardwood, to name a few, are believed to have jump-started the trend; now it’s taking off in laminates.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 11.30.09 AM“Wood paneling is back, but in a big, new way,” said Sara Babinski, design manager, hardwood and laminate, Armstrong. “We typically see these products being used as accent walls, installed horizontally, vertically or on the diagonal. The look is natural, with a beautiful accent of warmth, texture and color.”

Other prominent design professionals attest to the trend. Erinn Valencich, celebrity interior designer and pitch woman for Quick-Step laminates, has personally specified laminate flooring for wall applications on some of her projects. What initially gave her the idea, she said, was when she first utilized wood paneling to spruce up the generic, bland, builder-grade white paneling installed on an island-style kitchen countertop for a home she designed. “The look instantly changed the feel of the kitchen,” she recalled. “The homeowner loved it.”

Since then, she has looked to use flooring materials in unconventional ways. One of her favorite uses is an accent wall, which entails covering an entire side of one of the walls in a room with laminate flooring planks. “It’s smart, chic and surprising,” she explained. “From rustic to natural wood, I can pick the look that works best for my design plan.”

Reclaimed wood looks for the floor and wall is especially hot right now, Valencich said, based on the dramatic effect it provides. But she admits genuine reclaimed wood is not always practical or budget friendly. “I can get that same look by using Quick-Step laminate instead,” she said. “It comes in multiple widths and there are so many styles and color variations from which to choose.”