Though wood-look products have taken the market by storm with their strikingly realistic visuals—and, until recently, lower price points—consumers still value the authenticity and character of the real thing. With advances in design, finishing techniques and moisture resistance, experts say hardwood is, and will continue to be, the aspirational flooring option for U.S. consumers.
Consumers Desire Authenticity
“Plain and simple, people want real wood,” said Lee Safrit, hardwood business leader, Anderson Tuftex. “You have all of these different industries wanting to look like real hardwood, but they all want to look like it. And there’s ways to get there, but people want real wood.”
Hardwood flooring manufacturers remain confident in the category and their products as consumer reports indicate the desire for real wood floors among homeowners is high.
“I can’t reiterate enough how exciting and how well loved the wood category is,” said John Hammel, hardwood category manager, Shaw. “As I travel around the country talking with retailers, consumers, friends and family, wood is a very loved and cherished category. It carries a lot of nostalgia and it really speaks to that authenticity.”
But with so many low-cost vinyl and laminate wood-look products on the market, pressure has been put on the lower end of the hardwood category as consumers seem to be settling for the lookalikes.
“It’s an interesting time right now,” said Dan Natkin, vice president of laminate and hardwood, Mannington Mills. “We are seeing strong growth in the mid-to-upper ends of the hardwood market and at the lower end we see the category giving way to printed products such as LVT and laminate.”
Also praised for durability and ease of installation, these wood-look products are a force to be reckoned with, but with improved maintenance solutions, more options in durability and evolution in color and design, Gary Cissell, buying groups manager, Duchateau, says wood flooring is giving today’s customer real wood solutions to everyday life situations.
Michael Martin, president and CEO of the National Wood Floor Association (NWFA), adds that with today’s finishes, wood flooring can be installed with confidence practically anywhere in the home and even in some commercial environments. “Wood is a natural material that is meant to stand up to active family life. Today’s finishes make it possible to have wood floors in any environment, even retail spaces like malls and restaurants that see more traffic than a normal home would.”
Neil Poland, president of Mullican Flooring added, “The advancement in finishes has provided us with the opportunity to sell a prefinished wood floor that is even more durable today than in the past.”
As for the appeal of a lower price point, Marge Kehrer Flamme, southern California sales manager for Ark Floors, says that with the increased price of vinyl plank, due mostly to tariffs, the price gap between wood and vinyl has shrunk, and this seems to be the case for other categories that have seen a hike in prices as well.
“If you look at what people are spending in other categories right now, there’s a perception that hardwood is for the upper echelon, and while some of the products are, there are still very budget-conscious options that we have that are the same price or less than some of the wood-look tiles or some of the porcelain products,” said Matt Rosato, director of category, Anderson Tuftex.
Simply put, with hardwood versus wood-look products, you get the beauty, feel, prestige and the strength of a real natural product versus an imitation, Rosato added. “Homeowners are very proud to own a real hardwood floor. It’s like a status thing. I don’t think you normally hear folks running around talking about my rigid core, LVT product.”
On the design front, no matter the level of realism imitation wood products reach, you cannot replace certain attributes of real wood, says Natkin. “[Wood] has no repeated visual, every single plank is unique.”
Flooring trends are led by fashion and when it comes to surface texture and long, wide boards, these are fashions that start with wood, says Ben Lin, president of Linco Enterprises. “This industry is led by fashion—if you want a wood plank look, then why not buy real wood, which is never out of favor.”
Investing in the Future
Hardwood floors have proven to be a valuable investment in homes, health, the U.S. economy and environment over time.
“Wood floors can last for hundreds of years, which makes them a tremendous long-term value,” said Martin. “Other flooring options will need to be removed and replaced numerous times before a wood floor will even need to be refreshed.”
Because of those characteristics, Natkin believes hardwood is the most universal flooring option available. “The principal fact that it can be refinished over time, whether through a full sand and finish or a screen and recoat allows the floor to last for an almost indefinite amount of time.”
As with any floor, wear over time is inevitable, but experts say where wood differs is that wear adds character to the floors of a space for its lifetime and beyond. “When small scratches and dents do occur, they often add to the natural character of the material,” said Martin. “In fact, there are 300-plus year-old castles in Europe with original wood floors that are still in use today.”
Cissell adds, “As the old saying goes, ‘it gets better with age’. Hardwood floors, especially those with hard-wax oil or UV oil finishes develop a patina over time, increasing their warmth and beauty. This ageless luxury is a feature that resonates with today’s consumers.”
For homeowners looking to up the value of their homes, David Williams, vice president, Horizon Forest Products, says wood flooring is an investment that not only brings value now, but also down the road when it’s time to sell.
“Real estate agents have indicated homes with wood floors sell faster and for more money than homes without them,” said Martin.
Wood advocates say the floors are also ideal for end-users that suffer from allergies and are looking to improve the air quality of their homes since wood does not trap dirt or dust. This also makes wood floors easy to clean and maintain.
“Routine maintenance involves nothing more than sweeping or dry-mopping the floor,” advised Martin. “On a weekly or as-needed basis, clean with a product specifically designed for wood floors using a microfiber mop.”
And when spills happen on hardwood floors, because they will, if wiped up within a short time, they should not cause any harm to a wood floor, contrary to popular belief, says Lin.
“People are being told that they can’t spill water on [wood floors]—that they are not durable,” Flamme said. “They are also cautioned about flooding that will ruin their floor. Well, guess what? If you have a flood, no matter what floor you have, your insurance company is going to require it to be replaced, not dried out and reinstalled.”
Investment in the value and quality of the home are major selling points for hardwood floors, and for the environmentally-conscious consumer, hardwood’s sustainable properties add to the list of plusses.
“Wood is a natural product, better for the environment,” Flamme said. “The wood comes from managed forests and the product can be recycled at the end of its term, unlike the vinyl plank/petroleum based products.”
This sustainability story is especially appealing to millennials, says Flamme, as more of them are looking for natural, environmentally-friendly products for their homes.
For those skeptical about the impact hardwood flooring has on forests and the environment, it should be known that in order to promote forest growth, older trees need to be cut down to allow the younger ones to grow, says Natkin.
According to Martin, more than two trees are replanted for every tree harvested in the U.S. “In fact, the standing volume of trees in the U.S. has more than doubled since the 1950s and continues to grow each year.”
Better for the U.S. economy are manufacturers that are producing domestically, which is something that more and more consumers are also considering before making a purchase.
Ark Floors’ sustainably, plantation-grown proprietary exotic species allow the company to be tariff resistant and to do business seamlessly. “Ark’s company culture is one that our retailer and distributor/industry partners can expect to remain seamless, flexible and easy to do business with,” said Ed Goldberg, national sales manager, Ark Floors.
Speaking to the trend of European White Oak visuals, Mullican has introduced Euro sawn products made in the U.S. with its domestic lumber.
“Wood requires a bit more knowledge to sell and so the stores with the more seasoned sales teams sell more wood,” said Flamme. “Many other showrooms have order takers who have either never tried to sell wood or have forgotten the reasons to try.”
Educating both retailers and consumers on the qualities and value of hardwood floors is important to the longevity of the products.
“Retail sales associate (RSA), education is an on-going challenge,” said Cissell. To combat that, Duchateau is formulating a simple learning approach that creates talking points for suppler territory managers, so they can act more like a “train the trainer”, supplying a combination of highly engaging visual, written, and accountability standards to assist RSA’s presentation of supplier materials.
Similarly, Shaw is providing product knowledge training for its RSAs once new product reach their store. “We’re focused on providing talking points for the RSAs’ conversations with consumers, key benefits of the product, and above all, how to help the RSA determine the right product for the consumer’s needs and desired aesthetic,” said Hammell.
Additionally, manufacturers are using the digital space to further strengthen their education and product information for both retailers and their customers.
“We are also investing in more online tools for not only our customers but their customers, to become more informed about the products we are selling,” said Williams.
Following the trend to online training and resources, Mannington is investing significantly in new digital tools to help the retailer and consumer understand the differences within the line and to help them visualize the floor in their home.
With so many products on the market, there is a lot of confusion about what is and is not a real wood product. NWFA’s Real Wood. Real Life. Campaign is designed to help provide clarity so that consumers can make informed buying decisions. “This campaign provides tools our members can use – print ads, web site ads, social media posts, trade show collateral, etc. – to educate consumers about the value of benefits of real wood products,” said Martin.