State of the Wood Floor Industry: Taking Charge Amid an Economy in Retreat
Our nation and allies have accepted, but also will never forget, the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. If it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times: things happen for a reason. Both our economy and domestic security had been taken for granted for a long time. Realignment, in the wake of Sept. 11, was evitable in both of these categories. Securing our future and our economy, fortunately, has become everyone's concern.
Within the floor covering industry, the hardwood segment has once again emerged as a tenacious survivor in a distressed economy. Blaming Sept. 11 for strained economic conditions was an after-the-fact determination. In reality, growth in the floor covering industry was minimal, at best, as early as June 2001. The reassuring sounds of ringing cash registers were already beginning to be drowned out by the annoying drone of negative economic reports.
But, depending on how you look at it, the news has not been all bad.
In January 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the nation's unemployment rate came in at 5.8%. But the flip side of this statistic is the fact that more than 94% of the national labor pool is still employed. Those gainfully employed people represent a huge potential market for hardwood flooring products and services.
Furthermore, construction industry statistics on new home starts strongly indicate that, as we go forward this year, developers are hoping consumers will remain willing to shoulder the long-term commitment associated with buying a home. Obviously, these new home starts also are being supported by the multiple interest rate cuts implemented by the Federal Reserve Board during the course of the last 12 months or so.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, new housing starts rose 1.7% in September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.57 million units. But November figures showed that new residential construction starts fell 3% from October to a seasonally adjusted annual value of $478.2 billion, according to the F.W. Dodge Division of The McGraw-Hill Cos.
Rather than unabated doom and gloom, other November reports indicated more of a rebalancing among building sectors. The value of commercial construction grew 10% to $184.5 billion, but residential building dropped 5% to $202.6 billion. Single-family housing starts declined 6% in dollar volume, while multi-family housing remained roughly on par with the prior month.
These numbers underscore the fact that a very healthy volume of commercial starts is in the pipeline for 2002. However, one might see in the recent housing statistics an indication that cautious buyers may be leaning toward renting rather than making long-term mortgage commitments. In reality, multi-family housing has always been considered "speculation construction" because so many factors, economic and otherwise, can affect the occupancy rates of the finished projects.
So, how well did the hardwood flooring industry fare during 2001? The National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) reported a measurable aggregate increase of approximately 1%. Strip shipments in November 2001 came in at 43.287 million board feet compared to the year-earlier figure of 42.913 million.
Though the wood floor industry's growth was not as dramatic as the rate of previous years, many of the nation's big businesses would have been delighted to claim a 1% increase in a year as tumultuous as 2001.
It's true that a good number of potential consumers have elected to go into a hibernation of sorts. Their interpretation of "homeland security" takes the form of a self-imposed retreat to the safety of their homes.
Believe it or not, such consumer attitudes may form the basis of our first winning hand in 2002. Consumers who elect not to travel or take vacations, often focus on their home environment. And when they have such a mindset, it's usually not long before they start to think about refurbishing or remodeling their homes to make them more comfortable and stylish.
These homebodies are natural prospects for hardwood flooring products. The potential customers that are "cropping up" in the remodel/replacement market are not only "ripe," they're just waiting for someone to "pick" them. So why shouldn't you be the one to reap this harvest? Capitalizing on the prevailing mood among consumers just makes good business sense.
Look at the recent revival of patriotism and how that's translated to the American Flag being displayed and duplicated on clothing, costume jewelry, etc. Both buyers and sellers filled a need during a bewildering time in our nation's history. Similarly, hardwood flooring offers consumers the opportunity to simultaneously invest in our industry's future and the value of their homes.
Economist are predicting a late 1st quarter or early 2nd quarter rebound in business overall. Homebuilders appear to be optimistic. Interest rates are likely to level off. How do we, as an industry, navigate in such a climate?
Manfacturers. Pricing must be reflective of the times. Discounts and/or price concessions, combined with co-op support for advertising, are real attention-getters. Sufficient inventory of popular products is a must for turnaround delivery, via the local authorized distributor, to the retailer/dealer.
Distributors. Make a strong point of visiting your dealers. Take a discerning look at the dealer's product display, and revamp or replace wood flooring product samples. If the sample is just taking up space, you're not adequately servicing the dealer.
After all, how can you expect the dealer to be motivated if you've failed to motivate them? If given the opportunity, create advertisements that qualify for manufacturers' co-op programs. Stress the need for the dealer to stay in the limelight.
Dealers/Contractors. Whenever possible, create a sense of knowledge and trust with the customer. Know your product. Make yourself accessible and convenient. Challenge your sales force and compliment them when they answer the call. Align with trade associations and other organizations, such as the Better Business Bureau. Advertise on radio, TV and utilize your local newspaper as often as a progressive budget will allow.
Remember, the consumer has been hibernating. If you can't bring Mohammad to the mountain, then bring the mountain to Mohammad.
Wood or Wood Knot invites you to take charge. Hopefully, you'll never consider retreat because, if you haven't learned by now, our industry refuses to accept defeat.