A child's bedroom featuring Preverco's Original Series Hardwood flooring, seen here in beechwood, one of 10 species available in the series.

If you're a retailer looking for a hardwood manufacturer/distributor, it's best to start on the ground floor. There are six key criteria you should use to evaluate the category. The bottom line: start with the basics. Consider the qualities that define the manufacturers/distributors and serve as the foundation of their business.

With few exceptions, the most critical areas of strength (or weakness) of a wood partner are these:
  • Product Quality
  • Customer Service
  • Marketing Support
  • Installation Support
  • Shipping and Delivery
  • Trend Recognition

Let's look at each of these areas.

Product Qualitymay well be the most fundamental area of concern. Product quality encompasses two distinct aspects: "Hardwood quality" and "hardwood variety." Hardwood quality involves the milling precision, drying process and grading of the wood as well as other essential considerations. "Hardwood variety" indicates that a manufactuer/distributor offers a wide variety of hardwood options. This gives customers the best chance of finding something that suits their needs and taste.

Marketing Supportis another huge area. The greater the brand recognition, the easier the selling process becomes for the retailer. As more and more consumers research their options on the Internet before visiting a retailer, the recognizable brands are bound to get the attention. Many customers now begin their shopping equipped with vital information, such as product features and benefits, cost, and any special offers. All of which increases the chance of purchase.

Marketing support can come in a number of ways. Merchandising tools such as point-of-purchase (POP) displays can be instrumental in promoting a specific line or brand. Eye-catching and informative signs that promotes price incentives rebates or special offers can be highly useful.

Then, of course, there is consumer advertising. Whether it is print, radio, television or the Internet, a compelling ad can give a manufacturer's product "top of mind" awareness with the customer. As a result, there is a much higher likelihood that they will request that particular brand.

Customer Serviceencompasses a variety of disciplines and can be a big challenge to master. Ultimately, the ability to consistently provide superior customer service boils down to having support staff that is knowledgeable and friendly. Whether through phone contact or e-mail, support staff should be readily available. They should offer educated answers and helpful troubleshooting tips, always with a good attitude.

Installation Supportis indisputably important. There are now more types of wood flooring being used than ever before, and a larger need for expert advice. Plus, with our industry's technology becoming increasingly sophisticated, there are multiple methods for installation. The knowledge that today's installer needs to have at his fingertips goes well beyond the hands-on installation work. There is a need to grasp the specific requirements of natural and engineered wood. They must know how domestic solids differ from "exotics." Then, of course, there are moisture issues that wreak havoc on any wood floor. The list goes on.

Hardwood flooring should be inspected by the manufacturer or distributor before it is sent on to the retailer.

Shipping and Deliveryusually becomes an issue only if it is not handled properly. After all, a wood floor supplier can have great products; great selection and great price, but if they can't get the product to you in a timely fashion, those factors quickly become irrelevant.

Of course, this area goes beyond getting the product to retailers on time. It also includes a choice among the shipping methods used. By offering a variety of methods, a manufacturer or distributor will not only get the product to the customer on time, they will demonstrate a superior understanding of good customer service because they recognize that each retailer has a preferred method of delivery. It's also important to ensure that these delivery options can be provided at reasonable cost.

Trend Recognitionis really a matter of determining the direction customers are headed. If those selling hardwood flooring are in tune with current trends, it suggests that they are knowledgeable about their industry. This helps them gain their customer's confidence, and ultimately making more sales.

Clearly, the wood flooring companies on top of the most current trends in hardwood flooring are not only an excellent source of information, but are also likely to have the products and services most sought after by customers.

Of course there are other factors that a retailer might consider when choosing a wood flooring manufacturer/distributor, such as product availability and exclusivity, sales training, and of course, competitive pricing. But these aforementioned areas truly represent the ground floor.

SIDEBAR: So what's new in wood...

Although they are certainly subject to change, there are currently several trends that are emerging on the wood flooring scene. They include:

Engineered hardwoods. Without question, engineered hardwoods are rapidly gaining ground. They are already here in full force. Not only do engineered products outperform solid wood products in many instances, they are more environmentally friendly because far fewer trees are needed in their manufacture. Additionally, where engineered wood was once more costly, the price points are now comparable -- and in some cases lower -- than solid woods.

Exotic products. Exotic woods such as Brazilian cherry, ipe, tigerwood and Santos are becoming increasingly popular despite their high price. Essentially, any woods rich in tone are being used more frequently. While these woods are not only more aesthetically pleasing, they also provide a warmer, cozier ambience to any setting.

Offshore products. Wood from China and other offshore sources is cropping up with greater frequency. Still, a word of caution, these products can present installation problems because of quality issues. One of the major disadvantages of installing an offshore product is that the finish often peels off much more easily than with another type of wood, such as an exotic.

Wider boards. The wide-plank look is very much in vogue, as it offers a kind of "Old World" appearance that many customers are seeking. In fact, where 3 1/4" boards were once the standard, it is not uncommon to see boards as wide as 7". It should be noted that when board width increases, engineered woods create a far more dimensionally stable product than the solid version, as they are less likely to cup or crown under high moisture conditions or "gap" in the winter.

Distressed look. Many customers like the rustic charm that comes with boards that appear to be pre-weathered or distressed. New technology lets manufacturers product wood that looks like it's many decades old. Introduced several years ago, these hand-scraped or wire-brushed offerings are immensely trendy in the United States.