The Pacific Heights Strip Collection from Armstrong incorporates exotics, traditional oaks and domestic hardwood visuals. Shown here is Autumn Maple, which features narrow widths and tonal colors from light to dark.

With continuing improvements to its printing technologies and the ability to produce more technically demanding designs, laminate flooring is now hitting an unprecedented area of growth. Manufacturers say this once-minor segment has seen a 20 percent increase in sales volume over the last year alone. And they're only just starting. The potential for continued growth has prompted flooring makers to devote more resources to the segment: Tarkett, for example, re-entered the laminate arena in North America last year; and Mohawk recently made headlines by purchasing laminate maker Quick-Step for $2.6 billion.

The benchmark of a good laminate floor used to be "How closely does this resemble oak?" But as the technology has become more advanced, the segment has kept pace, showcasing products with greater visual depths and more complexity. Aided by embossed textures, stone and ceramic looks have made inroads in the segment, though in a relatively small way: with only about a fifth of new laminate designs now devoted to tile. The most popular styles right now, according to Zack Zehner, Mannington's director of laminate business, continue to be exotic hardwoods and, to a lesser extent, rustic, hand-scraped textures.

"If I see one overall trend for the laminate segment, it's the race toward realism," he says. "We are really able to play with the visuals now, especially in our exotic and hand-scraped looks. Through this technology, we not only have clearer looks, but also the feel of the product that the laminate flooring is emulating."

Many of the looks Zehner mentions are found mainly in Mannington's mid- to high-end laminate collections. He notes that Mannington will continue to push higher-priced laminate flooring, as that is where the company is seeing the most growth. In addition, the higher end of the segment is where most of the technological advances appear. Exotic hardwoods require a higher attention to detail in the coloration and graining, he says, and hand-scraped finishes require special texturing and embossing, all of which can be costly to produce.

"Focusing on the higher-end is an extremely important part of our growth strategy as a company," Zehner says. "The number of applications for these products are growing. These enhanced visuals appeal not only to our core business - independent retailers and flooring contractors - but are attracting a growing amount of builder business, as well."

Other laminate manufacturers are also beginning to eye the builder market for potential new consumers, says David Wilkerson, vp of marketing for Shaw's Hard Surfaces division. He notes that while Shaw has had more success cultivating new business in multi-family markets - which include apartments and condos - the company is not going to leave the builders (and commercial) market untapped for much longer.

"Though laminate is a relatively small niche in the commercial and builders markets right now, we feel the category will continue to grow in these areas," Wilkerson says.

He adds that consumer appeal will be fueled by obvious advancements to the category. "The visual realism and overall durability of the floor has greatly improved," Wilkerson notes. "A consumer today has a very difficult time in telling whether something is a laminate floor as opposed to a hardwood or stone."

While stone-look products are also benefiting from advances in laminate technology, hardwood designs in laminate are currently "the drivers of the category," according to Mark Danner, product design manager of laminate flooring for Armstrong. He says that consumers are starting to favor products that feature a quasi-realistic look - for example, a hardwood grain offering a color that varies from what would be found in nature, or multiple layers of translucent surface stain.

"There's so many possibilities in wood that haven't been explored," Danner says. "Laminate is becoming much more design oriented."

To date, Armstrong has launched more than 100 SKUs in its various laminate collections, comprising both hardwood and stone designs, according to Milton Goodwin, general manager of laminate products for Armstrong. In a bid to spark interest in consumers younger than Armstrong's usual base, the company unveiled the Bruce line of laminate flooring this past March. Armstrong expects nationwide distribution of the line by early 2006, Goodwin says.

"We wanted the Bruce line to be more heavily weighted in less traditional SKUs," he notes. "It's geared toward more exotic looks, and things other than oaks."

Armstrong is one among many major manufacturers that are dedicating more resources to their laminate departments. Most notably among recent developments, Mohawk is aiming to become a key player in the laminate field with its purchase of Quick-Step.

"It is a substantial takeover - one of the largest in the flooring industry," says Piet Huyghe, co-president of Quick-Step. "It shows how important the laminate category has become, and will continue to be for many years to come."

Under the terms of the deal, Quick-Step will continue to operate its business independently, concentrate on its established distribution channel, and keep its products separate from Mohawk. Huyghe says Quick-Step does plan to produce a separate line of laminate flooring under the Mohawk name sometime next year.

"Mohawk is going to treat us like they have treated (recently acquisitioned) Dal-Tile," Huyghe notes. "They're going to leave us alone as much as possible."

Pergo's Vintage Home Traditional Strip collection uses micro-beveled seams in narrow-width planks of three different lengths. The product is available in six decors, including Northampton Oak, pictured here.

Like Mohawk, hard flooring maker Tarkett has repurposed itself to bring a greater selection of laminate flooring to the market. Following a failed bid to bring the category to North America in the late ‘90s, Tarkett withdrew and focused its laminate collections in Europe, according to Lise LeBreton, Tarkett's director of styling and design. The company returned to U.S. soil last year, trumpeting its return via several new laminate collections at Surfaces 2005. Tarkett says it also plans to bring a laminate production plant online in Clarion, Pa., in late 2006.

For Surfaces 2006, Tarkett will show off new exotics and hand-scraped collections, LeBreton says - including exotic snake wood and tiger wood looks, a laminate that mimics the look of natural fiber, and several high-end, chocolate-colored products with highly textured finishes. In addition to the seven hand-scraped laminates available, Tarkett plans to introduce eight more distressed-look SKUs at Surfaces. The new designs come from worldwide design trends, LeBreton explains.

"We've developed products not so much for a specific market, but for a world market," LeBreton says. "These new products are based on ideas gathered from trade shows around the world."

Consumers have been increasingly receptive to bold laminate designs, says Pergo's design director, Don Cybalski. He explains that the company introduced a new SKU called Boathouse Pine last year - a pine-look laminate floor that's been whitewashed and sanded away so it looks extremely distressed - and it quickly shot up in the company's sales rankings. "When consumers see a style they love, they're willing to take that leap of faith and trust their instincts," he says. "That's really encouraging for us."

BHK of America's Moderna Vision line is a hand-scraped laminate flooring collection. Pictured here in Pecan (style V-921), Moderna Vision features four-sided micro-bevel technology.

In the same vein, consumers are favoring products that have an exotic flavor, which, contrary to popular opinion, does not necessarily mean a tropical hardwood look, Cybalski notes.

"A few years ago, exotics meant primarily South American species," he says. "Now we're seeing American exotics like spalted maple starting to take off - woods with interesting grains and mineral streaks."

While exotic species are currently the hot item in laminate flooring, Jeff Kellogg, North American sales and marketing director for laminate specialty papers maker MeadWestvaco, predicts that laminate's horizons will expand astronomically once it stops taking its cues mostly from existing hardwood and stone designs.

"It's a ways away," Kellogg says, "but once laminate flooring becomes its own design category independent of wood and stone, it will really go to new places. Laminate is easy to mix and match, so manufacturers could come up with a custom-made floor relatively painlessly."

Such a shift, if it occurs, will probably take place in the commercial side of the business first, Kellogg notes, and slowly trickle down to the residential marketplace. It's an interesting thought. Perhaps in another ten years, homeowners will be removing their exotic-look laminate floors and renovating them with custom designs and graphics that manufacturers haven't yet imagined. That scenario might seem like a long shot, but in a category that continues to grow more technically advanced, it also seems like a possibility.