Communication, actions and reputation play a big role in a company’s ability to meet customer expectations. For manufacturers, this hinges on transparency and open dialogue with their retail partners. Shaw Floors takes this dialogue very seriously, demonstrating it through the Shaw 360 Tour program. Over three days, Shaw-aligned retailers are invited to Georgia for a deep dive into company culture through behind-the-scenes plant tours, boisterous bus rides and candid conversations with Shaw team members and each other.

“These tours are intended to spotlight Shaw’s commitment to innovation, manufacturing and service,” said Connie Corbin, marketing manager for Shaw hard surfaces, who had the responsibility and privilege of planning more than two dozen of these tours over the last two years. “Our hope is that everyone leaves with fond memories of the Shaw family.”

In late September, Floor Trends joined 26 representatives from five Midwest retailers on the last Shaw 360 Tour for 2017. They included Hennen Floor Covering in Freeport, Minn.; Hiller’s Flooring America in Rochester, Minn.; Randy’s Flooring in Coralville, Iowa; Coyle Carpet One Floor & Home in Madison, Wis.; and Tollefson’s Retail Group with locations in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota.

The group spent three days touring four plants—Epic hardwood Plant HW, resilient manufacturing in Ringgold, Ga., carpet manufacturing Plant 81 and the new commercial carpet tile plant. Sprinkled in between tours were line reviews of hard and soft surfaces with senior management and casual social opportunities where retailers had the chance to share stories and talk about what is working and not working in their markets.

“The Shaw 360 Tour provides our customers a chance to not only see carpet, wood, and LVT manufacturing processes, but also gives them a chance to see the dedication and pride our employees bring to their jobs every day,” said Kurt Paulson, divisional vice president, Shaw. “We get a chance to spend quality time deepening our relationships with those who sell our products every day. I believe everyone that goes on these tours leaves with an understanding the commitments and capital investments Shaw has made to be the best flooring solutions provider in the industry.”

The first tour stop, Plant HW in South Pittsburg, Tenn., produces the Epic engineered hardwood line. The facility produces one million square feet of flooring per week and is capable of 1.3 to 1.4 million square feet per week. Sustainability is a focus of the process, which begins with sheets of mainly hickory, oak and maple veneers. The lumber is responsibly harvested, FSC certified and RPP certified by the National Wood Flooring Association. The automated process goes through pressing, rough saw, profiling, the finish line, inspection, sizing, packaging, and color and quality control labs.

Quality standards are taken seriously—colors are checked every 15 minutes in a color room where techs are tested annually to make sure they can accurately spot aberrations. The Quality Control lab also does a soak, swell, abrasion and moisture testing to ensure that the product sent to customers stands up to Epic’s standards.

Shaw continues to make capital investments. A tour of the $100 million Ringgold, Ga., facility, home to LVT and WPC lines (and future home of COREtec flooring), is being enhanced to fully leverage the USFloors acquisition. The facility is designed for the future, with modular floors and walls so that the plant can grow and adjust over time to accommodate new equipment, according to Daniel Speck, technical manager. A state-of-the-art research and development lab and pilot line allow the team to sample new products at ¼ scale to trial out samples without interrupting production.

The Ringgold facility, which will ultimately create more than 240 new jobs, currently employs more than 160 associates, with further expansions planned in support of the USFloors business. The facility actively promotes ShawVet, an employee resource group at Shaw Industries, that advocates for military service members, veterans and their families. “Veterans bring tremendous value in technical expertise and leadership to Shaw,” Speck said.

A tour of Plant 81 showcased how carpet that was once sent to landfills is being converted into energy. Shaw participates in third-party programs designed to verify the environmental and health impacts of its products. One of the most rigorous third-party assessment programs in the world, Cradle to Cradle, focuses on safe materials, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship, and social fairness. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute verifies that certified products include only chemicals and components that are safe, and that can be recycled or reused. In 2016, 85% of the sales of Shaw manufactured product were Cradle to Cradle Certified, a 30% increase over last year. The increase was due to the certification of our polyester carpet products. Shaw’s goal is to design 100 percent of Shaw’s products to this standard by 2030, according to its 2016 Sustainability Report.

These statistics are becoming more important to retailers as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have become a bigger topic of conversation among consumers. “People want to know that products have passed guidelines here in the United States,” said Roxanne Bibeau, sales consultant at Coyle Carpet One Floor & Home in Madison, Wis. “At least once or twice every two to three weeks people will ask for low VOCs on carpet. The younger families—the millennials—are focused on VOCs.”

Shaw Plant T1, an $85-million carpet tile facility in Adairsville, Ga., opened in fourth quarter 2016, provides added production capacity and recycling capability for the company’s Patcraft, Philadelphia Commercial and Shaw Contract brands. It complements the company’s existing carpet tile manufacturing, recycling and warehouse facilities in Cartersville, Ga., and Nantong, China. The plant produces five days a week and some Saturdays. Common sizes—24x24, 18x36, 9x36, 12x48—make up 80% of the plant’s business, but the company recently added an ultrasonic cutter that can cut any shape, said Brandon Ylvisaker, department manager at Shaw Industries.

During a hard surface review in Shaw’s “war room” at company headquarters, retailers previewed products Shaw will introduce in 2018. “One of the great things is our wood and laminate has been approved for wall installation,” said Dan Ebersold, builder division. “They were using our woods as a fireplace and wall accent. You want to move past the floor and recommend it for the wall.”

Retailers on the tour agreed that they are seeing more laminate sales. Ebersold noted that the Shaw is now outsourcing its laminate manufacturing to another U.S. manufacturer that could provide different solutions. “While everyone is looking at the shiny penny of resilient, no one has been paying attention to laminate,” Ebersold said. “Resilient covers a fantastic part of our marketplace, but it hasn’t achieved that true look of wood. It doesn’t get that depth. Laminate is getting that depth. It’s also more dent resistant, more scratch resistant and looks fantastic.”

In wood, Shaw is turning its designers loose to encourage more creativity to explore unique wood species and finishes. “Before, everything was monolithic,” Ebersold said. “Now, we are letting God show the differences in the wood. We take the tree, cut it up, add some finish and you can assemble that tree on someone’s floor. Today, we can use the entire tree—it’s the true appreciation of the wood.”

While Ebersold’s statement is lighthearted, it is also the reality in the Midwest market. “We are seeing wider planks at 7 inches or greater, quality veneer on the front face, real hand scraped and really detailed, wire-brushed finishes,” said Amiee Wainwright, interior designer and sales at Randy’s Flooring. “I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon because the consumers are really still doing a lot of gray.”

“There is now more of a taupey gray,” added Mary Beckerman of Hennen Flooing. “It’s allowing customers to move in different directions.”

In soft surface, trends are shifting, and Shaw continues to use consumer insights to make strategic moves in the category. “We have a design team who travels all over the United States to discover trends,” said Teresa Tran, residential soft surface category manager. “We have 14,000 SKUS at Shaw. That’s a lot of product. When you think of consumers coming into your showroom. Just imagine, it’s overwhelming. We are trying to learn a lot about the consumer, but we know she wants hard or soft when it comes to carpet, but maybe that’s about it. She might have a picture, pillow or color chip, but she’s looking for your expertise to guide her.”