Maple Natural, in 5-inch plank, is an engineered product from Harris-Tarkett's Avenues Commercial Wood Floors line.

Wood flooring continues to grow in importance for profit-minded retailers and contractors. In fact, it is one of their most important and profitable products.

To provide a picture of what's selling best, and draw a bead on the near-term outlook for wood business, NFT asked a representative panel of retailers/contractors to share their experiences. Specifically, we wanted to know about their best-selling types of wood floors and species, the state of their wood business today as well as their outlook for the balance of the year and beyond. And finally, we wanted to know what they identify as some of the key factors in wood's sales growth

By the way, the increased importance of wood is further substantiated by a National Floor Trends retailer/contractor survey taken in June to determine how each category of floor coverings (carpet, ceramics, wood, etc.) ranked in their stores and their projections for future of each.

That survey asked: Of your total floor covering sales, what percentage do you sell in each category? The median percentage for wood floors is a healthy 16%. Another survey question was: In which one product category have you seen the greatest growth? Wood floors is a healthy 26%, no. 2 in ranking. Taking it one step further, we asked: By what percentage did this product category grow? Wood grew by a median figure of 20% -- tied for 1st place.

For this article, we started off by asking participants two key questions: What types of wood floors are your best sellers? And what are your best-selling species?

Al Gruen of Alexandria, Va.-based Carpet One of Alexandria & Tysons calls engineered plank his best seller, but adds that solid strip remains a mainstay. "However, there is a trend toward engineered products," he says. "When it comes to species, in our area the best seller is still oak, with maple starting to do well.

"Our best selling upper-end brand is Mirage. There is general interest in exotic species, such as Australian cypress and Brazilian cherry woods," Gruen continues. "While designers and interior decorators are showing interest in bamboo, at this time it is not an important product for us."

Esteem, shown here in Harvest Birch, is part of Shaw's VersaLock Glueless Hardwood Floor line.
Mitchell BrownofFrench-Brown Floorsin Dallas sells only hard-surface products. He describes his product mix as 80 percent wood plank and parquetry.

"We don't keep track of prefinished vs. unfinished or 3/4-inch solid vs. engineered wood sales," Brown adds. "However, the bulk of our sales are 3/4-inch solid oak. While bamboo and some other exotics are gaining interest, American walnut and American cherry are our second and third best-selling species, respectively."

Greenville, S.C.-based Bonitz Flooring Group is strictly in the commercial market, according to Bonitz' Phil Asheley. "Most of the wood floors we sell are prefinished acrylic impregnated," he says. "The areas used on our jobs are mostly in lobbies and executive offices."

"The most popular for us is 3/4-inch" naildown and floating floors," says Ron Katz of Harry Katz Carpet One in Mineola, N.Y. "We find that many more of our customers are leaning toward wood -- with oak, maple and ash the most popular."

Patricia Davidson's company, Louisville, Ky.-based Aztec Flooring, is primarily involved in commercial work. "When we get into a specifying position -- and the look and feel is wood -- I recommend an acrylic-impregnated type, either PermaGrain or Hartco's Pattern Plus," she explains.

Ron Leach of Rafael Floor Covering in San Rafael, Calif. got out of onsite finishing some time ago and today only does prefinished jobs. "We do mostly remodel work, so we find it better to install the engineered products," he notes. "Our biggest sellers are 3-inch and wider planks with a square or micro-beveled edge.

"Oak and maple are still the standbys," Leach continues. "However, such exotics as Brazilian cherry, walnut and hickory are making inroads. We avoid American cherry because of the softness of the wood. I am waiting for Hartco's new acrylic-impregnated hardened American cherry that I saw at Surfaces to arrive because there is still a demand for it.

"Glue-down is still preferred by most of our customers," he adds, "although the floating system has real advantages when you have to go over an existing floor with some moisture or an irregular surface."

Featured here is Listone Giordano Plank White Oak City, an engineered wood floor line from Margaritelli.

Where to in the future?

During our discussions with the panel, we also tried to get a handle on the health of the wood floor market. Specifically, we asked:How is your wood business today and what is your outlook for the balance of the year and beyond?We followed up on that question with:What are some of the key factors influencing your wood sales growth?

Ron Katz is confident about the future. "The natural 'real thing' products are in," he observes. "Our wood sales have been growing and I believe they will continue to grow. We find that the same people who won't spend money on expensive vinyls willingly spend the dollars on wood."

"Our wood business continues to be important," Al Gruen interjects. "There is some growth in volume with the trend being up for the balance of the year. Wood is needed to provide a well-rounded product offering to the consumer."

Gruen firmly believes that "we need specialty items in order to set ourselves apart from the big-box stores. We need more consumer education tools, such as videos that demonstrate the advantages of our wood products. Manufacturers and distributors need to make co-op funds available for training."

Pictured is Autumn from Tembec's Muskoka line of prefinished 3/4-inch solid strip ash flooring.
"Our wood business has grown virtually every year for the past 20 years; we don't see any slowdown in the near future," Mitchell Brown reports with a lilt of delight in his voice. "Our business today is good, much stronger than six months ago. Our salespeople and estimators are working daily on very nice projects. Our forecast for the balance of the year is very promising.

"We feel that many customers realize that, even though the initial cost of a better-quality wood floor can be substantially more than some other materials, it is a product that could be in their home for generations," Brown continues. "We are excited about the availability of stains, sealers and finish coats that are more user friendly, faster drying and less toxic."

Ron Leach is bullish on the sales prospects created by prefinished products. "Our prefinished business continues to grow and I expect it to keep going in that direction," he says. "The new aluminum-oxide finishes with the longer guarantees haven't made much of a difference for our sales.

"One manufacturer is now applying a finish that it says is sun-fade free. If it really works, this will be a real sales benefit. If you place an area rug over a new prefinished floor and then move it months later, there is a great variation in shading compared to the part not covered by the rug."

Phil Ashley believes his wood sales will continue at their current pace. "Designers and architects are a key factor in the sales mix," he emphasizes. "Most of the products on our jobs are specified or selected by designers.

"We have all seen design trends come and go," Ashley continues. "With this in mind, I urge the industry to deliver a strong, positive wood message to the designers. This could be the major factor that would positively influence the commercial market right now and in the future."