Shaw's hard surfaces division has responded to growing demand for natural looks with its Natural Sensations laminate line. Pictured is the Plantation Oak pattern.

Since laminate flooring hit the U.S. marketplace in the early 1990s, we've seen a lot of changes - both good and bad. We witnessed an industry sweep the nation with a new product category, one that promised easy installation, minimum maintenance and patterns that would rival conventional flooring products in realism and pricing. Furthermore, laminates possessed performance characteristics that manufacturers of traditional flooring products could only dream of.

Well here we stand at the threshold of another year. So, where will the laminate product category go next? I asked that question of the major laminate producers. Specifically, I inquired about their plans for new fashions and styles, and about what products they were developing to genuinely separate their offerings from those of alternative flooring types.

The following represents an accounting of what some of the key laminate players have promised for 2002. But before I dig into that, let's first review where the laminate industry has been, where it is today and where it intends to go over the coming year.

Yesterday and today

In the beginning, the laminate industry brought us a product that seemed too good to be true. People saw in it an unbeatable combination of benefits. This often resulted in overselling which, in turn, resulted in disappointed customers who had unrealistic expectations about laminates' ease of installation and need for little or no maintenance.

Who's to blame for that? No one person, company or installer. The important lesson learned was that the U.S. flooring market was ready for a new product and, to succeed, it simply had to be refined.

Essentially everyone who responded to my inquiry was quick to point out they have since developed a more installer-friendly product that eliminates the labor-intensive process of applying adhesive, precision fitting each component and removing excess adhesive from the seams. Hats off to the industry for recognizing a product weakness and responding in timely fashion.

A few brand-specific product names that yield the simplicity and ease of installation originally promised are Armstrong's Armalock, Classen's Connect System and Wilsonart's Duo Link. (Obviously, there are others but, for purposes of this story, I mention only those companies with whom I could make contact before deadline.)

Witex USA has made a concerted effort to enhance the "authenticity" of its single-plank designs, such as Legacy Oak, by adding rustic saw marks, knots and greater color variation.
As an added bonus, these new systems are designed to cut approximately by half the time required for installation. Will the glueless, mechanical-locking systems replace those that require adhesive? It appears unlikely. There truly is a time and place for both. The U.S. marketplace simply has a choice between two different installation systems.

In addition to product improvements, we've seen a relentless effort by the laminate industry to teach, train and unify the language used within the channels of sale. Retailers - and many end users - better understand the specifics of the warranty, maintenance routine and details of the product's performance.

Where to now?

Laminate flooring is now at a crossroads. If the U.S. market follows the path of its European counterpart, the key focus moving forward becomes price. In other words, who can build more of it cheaper and faster?

Based on responses from the manufacturers I interviewed, it is clear that more, cheaper and faster is not the focus the U.S. laminate industry. Rather, the strategy might best be expressed as "value added at a reasonable price." The laminate industry has recognized the vast potential of the U.S. market. That potential can be profitably tapped if they simply respond in a way that stimulates the American desire to lead with color, style and design.

Here, as promised, is an overview of what some laminate players have in the works for the coming year.

Witex USA Inc. researched and extensively tested a variety of surface textures developed to enhance the aesthetics of the floor surface without compromising the low-maintenance features of the product. Their research also found that single-plank designs featuring rustic saw marks, knots and greater variation of color add an element of authenticity to the laminate product. Legacy Oak serves as an apt example of Witex's efforts.

For it's part, Poliface is working to live up to its "changing the face of flooring" motto with the new Poliface Excel commercial-grade laminate featuring a eucalyptus core. Eucalyptus provides density and weight for exceptional impact and moisture resistance, the company says. The high-pressure laminate has an AC-5 rating.

Unilin D?cor n.v., producer of QuickStep laminate flooring, claims to have developed an new exclusive for the product category - laminate planks with a tangible wood effect. The longest sides of their planks are slanted and covered with a decorative layer that delivers the uncanny appearance of a real plank floor combined with all the advantages of the glueless QuickStep Uniclic system.

Antique Barn Oak, from Mannington's Historic Collection, captures the look of rare and extinct wood reclaimed form old barns, factories and warehouses.
Mannington is marching on in the realm of styling, color and design. This emphasis can be seen in the company's unique iCORE product, featuring micro-bevel edges for a convincing hardwood visual, and in the realistic replication of their NatureForm Tile Collection, which sports embossed-in-register grout lines and textures in the body of the tile that enhance the depth of the surface design.

Mannington's Traditional Collection is supported by the company's Historic Collection, which is created from rare and extinct wood reclaimed from old barns, factories, warehouses, and estates. Mannington completes its laminate offering with The Exotic Collection, a line designed to deliver the look of exotic wood species without depleting these rare wood resources.

Other suppliers have also lavished considerable attention on improving the looks of their products. Columbia Flooring has developed the three-dimensional NaturTex laminate line in four distinct wood tones. Armstrong is introducing the Nature's Gallery Collection, a line that the company says showcases a dynamic combination of beauty, texture and depth in natural colors of both wood and stone.

Shaw's hard surfaces division has responded to growing demand for natural colorations with Natural Sensations and Natural Sensations Plus featuring 14 wood-grain designs. In addition, Natural Grande utilizes the patented embossed-in-register technology to mimic the natural look and feel of ceramic tile.

Every manufacturer is racing against the clock to deliver the most unique, interesting product in time for Surfaces 2002 in January. During my conversations with manufacturers, I specifically asked for actual samples so that I could experience firsthand the feel of individual surface textures and closely examine the subtle color changes of the product. Many were unable to comply with my request, as they were still working to perfect their new introductions in time for Surfaces. Alloc, for one, did forward samples that allowed me to experience their take on most of the new innovations mentioned in this article.

In closing, there are two things about the laminate segment of which I am certain. First, fashion and style will be the overriding theme for laminate flooring in 2002. And second, the true test of how well the industry has refined the look and performance of the product will be borne out in sales - your sales.

Rest assured, whether or not the laminate industry has finally delivered on its seemingly too-good-to-be-true promises will be determined by your customers' decisions over the year ahead. Do yourself a favor and look closely at all the hidden laminate treasures tucked away among the aisles of the Surfaces 2002 exhibit hall. You'll definitely come away with a better understanding for how far the laminate segment has come in such a short time.