In spite of economic uncertainty, what many have dubbed a trade war with China and an ongoing shortage of skilled labor, flooring distributors foresee 2019 being a good year for the industry; a year of continued product innovation, positive market growth and category expansion, all to the benefit of both distributors and their retailer customers. Floor Trends recently sat down with distributors from the southeast market, Sandy Fowler, vice president of sales and marketing, Southern Wholesale Flooring; John Allen, vice president of sales and Gary Rudebeck, senior sales and product director, William M. Bird; and Hoy Lanning, president and CEO, J.J. Haines, to learn more about the positive outlook they share for business, the market and their customers in 2019.

FT: What's your outlook for 2019?

Haines: Even with all the questionable news of the economy and trade war with China, and where we’ll wind up with that, we still feel very positive about where we are headed.

WMB: We have a very positive upbeat outlook for 2019. Our customers really feel like the momentum they had in 2018 is going to continue. Obviously they are a little concerned about interest rates on the housing side of things and of course the tariffs. But they really feel good about where they're going to be and the projections they have from the builder market are very good. Most of the builders that our guys deal with are projecting increase in housing this year.

SWF: The last quarter of 2018 gave us some really, really good returns and a lot of activity from our customer base. So we're extremely optimistic about the new year, new products and new shipments to the market. All sunny skies.

FT: What initiatives are you launching or expanding this year?

SWF: We're going to continue to ride the trend of the luxury vinyl plank craze and water-resistant flooring. Obviously that's so relevant to the market today, but we're also not going to forget about our core products—the wood, the solid and the engineered wood. We're going to pay more attention this year to some of our domestic woods. For us, being a distributor, we want to make very sure that we're providing stellar service and support to [our customers], five days a week—maybe even seven days a week. So that's our initiative: service, service, service.

Haines: We’ve got a lot of new things that are coming out this year, so really growing our business a good percentage. We have a loyalty club program with approximately 400 dealers that we are growing and expanding in a big, big way. We also have Chesapeake which used to be a private label under J.J Haines, but it’s become so big that it had to become its own manufacturer.

WMB: I would certainly say fashion for the wall and expanding on waterproof LVT and waterproof in general. We work really hard with our sales team too, on things that we implement to get them out in the marketplace to gain a better relationship with our customers and try to get more market share.

FT: What are your retail customers’ biggest concerns?

WMB: Labor is a big, big deal. And interest rates in the builder segment.

SWF: Our customers are still very concerned with good quality, stellar service and people that are wanting to do business with them. Our customers are concerned because their customers are much more educated from the Internet today. It's a huge factor for all of us. The average consumer knows much more about flooring and the application, so retailers today have the added challenge of their consumers being able to what I consider “over shop” them. So that's a concern.

Haines: Our customers’ response to what they expect the economy to be has been very positive, but at the same time there's a lot of question about the trade war. What about the economy? What about the stock market? So there’s a lot of questions there. If they are losing sleep, they are losing sleep worrying about things that none of us really have control over.