This laminate product from Faus Floors features the company's patented Joint Guard Glueless System. Joint Guard incorporates a beveled edge with recessed seam areas below the main surface of the flooring planks. The company says that, because an embossed beveled edge is employed instead of scraped-beveling, the seams do not trap dirt.

U.S. retailers, who've been selling laminate flooring for nearly a decade, today find themselves wondering whether the product has improved from the standpoint of overall quality, performance, warranty, and ease of installation. The general consensus among retailers nationwide is that the overall quality of laminate flooring has eroded over recent years and laminate is becoming a commodity product.

Similar impressions are prevalent among consumers as well. In fact, NFT's recently released 2003 Laminate Flooring Market Study (the findings of which can be found in the August 2003 issue) quantified consumers' declining regard for the product. In the inaugural 2001 laminate study, dealers said that 69 percent of their customers responded very positively or somewhat positively to laminate flooring. By 2002, and again in 2003, only 64 percent of their clients held the same opinion of the product.

When it comes consumer perceptions of laminate durability, dealers this year said 68 percent of their clients viewed the product as highly durable, compared to the 73 percent and 72 percent who held that opinion in 2002 and 2001, respectively. And a similar magnitude of decline occurred in consumer perceptions of laminate quality. In 2001, dealers said 44 percent of their clientele considered laminate products to be of high quality. In this year's survey, that figure had fallen to 35 percent of the client base.

In light of the ongoing technical improvements laminate manufacturers have developed, one might be led to wonder whether these conclusions are based in fact. And if they are not, how does the specialty retailer go about debunking consumer misconceptions regarding laminate quality, durability and performance?

BHK of America's new Moderna Vision V-Joint Laminate Flooring has beveled sides to create a subtle v-groove between planks.

Why is laminate getting a bad rap?

As flooring retailer myself, I can tell you that a down economy always tests the integrity of the market, its products and the people who sell. The quest for sales will often drive a retailer to the lesser products in hopes of closing the sale. Unfortunately, lesser products sold today frequently come back tomorrow as unwanted problems that stem from the inherent quality of the goods sold.

For this article, I investigated the laminate product category in general to see what enhancements have been incorporated into laminate flooring over the recent past to make it perform better. It stands to reason that only by continuously improving the product -- and communicating these improvements to the consumer -- will manufacturers be able to restore the enthusiasm and confidence that retailers and end users had in laminate flooring a decade ago.

Most retailers and consumers have noticed the aesthetic improvements that have occurred over the last few years, particularly with the unique embossed-in-register technology that has taken the surface texture of laminate products to the pinnacle of realism. Laminates now possess an authenticity that entices the consumer to touch the surface to determine if it is real wood or ceramic. This alone is a feature that not only rivals other product categories, but also opens the door for more profit and easier sales.

These aesthetic enhancements are obvious and have been discussed in great detail since their introduction. Therefore, I will focus on the nuts-and-bolts improvements that have been incorporated into laminate flooring that are seldom noticed by consumers yet add so much value to the long-term performance of the product.

Enhancements to product integrity

Glueless, mechanical locking systems have allowed laminates to flourish by simply removing the element of installation error from a successful sale. This alone brings referrals from happy customers and an installation community that prefers laminate installations to those of alternative flooring products.

Let's reflect for a moment -- remember the era when installation required that individual planks be glued together? Back then, each manufacturer had a different technique for applying their adhesive: to the top of the tongue; in the groove; in the bottom of the groove; in both the top and bottom of the groove; squeeze out; etc., etc.

Installation of some products required the use of straps, others specified use of clamps. Some manufacturers maintained that their product didn't need clamps or straps -- the installer was advised to simply tape the joints as the planks were positioned. And who could forget the hassle of having to remove all adhesive residues from the laminate surface? Skip that step, and you were pretty well guaranteed to get a callback.

Well, things are different today.

Tim Tipton, Quick-Step's director of marketing, extols the virtues of his company's patented Uniclic glueless locking system, which is engineered to provide a tight, seamless joint for exceptional durability and easy installation. The precision-cut tongue-and-groove lock is created with Quick Step's customized machinery and, upon installation, exhibits no visible joints. In addition, Uniclic is stronger than most glued laminate flooring products, Tipton says, and is capable of withstanding 1,000 lbs. of pressure per linear yard.

Installation of Uniclic happens, literally, with a "click." Pieces fit together neatly and precisely, thus cutting installation time by as much as 50 percent compared to glued laminate floors. And without the need for adhesive, he adds, Uniclic is cleaner and also can be subjected to foot traffic immediately.

Mark Kieckhafer, marketing director for Alloc, claims that his company's aluminum locking mechanism represents a significant improvement over competing glue-free fiberboard locking elements. Alloc Original and Alloc Commercial provide joint strength of 1,000 lbs. per lineal foot, which Kieckhafer describes as the strongest in the industry.

It also worth noting -- and pointing out to consumers -- that the glueless system makes plank replacement easy and provides the ability to dismantle the installation and move the flooring to a different room as required by the end user's changing needs. A close look at the top-selling laminate floors confirms that most major manufacturers have emphatically embraced the glueless installation option.

Certainly, the shift away from glued systems brought about a bona fide wave of concern from retailers who questioned the glueless variety's ability to perform in active kitchen environments where the presence of moisture is a daily fact of life.

Jean Jones of Shaw Industries maintains that Shaw's Moisture Seal Core, featuring the company's ultra-dense core board, not only provides enhanced moisture resistance, but improves the panel's structural stability and impact resistance as well.

Witex USA President and CEO Steve Newman addresses moisture concerns by pointing to the Witex Titanium Residential warranty on the Country Loc Tec and Country Loc Tec Comfort lines. The warranty holds that moisture intrusion arising during normal household use of the product -- including situations in which the floor is exposed to both topical moisture as well as limited-duration, excessive water resulting from common household accidents such as leaking pipes or appliances -- will not damage the floor.

Other improvements seen in laminate flooring, which have accelerated the installation and improved comfort underfoot while significantly reducing in-room walking noise, include the premium attached underlayments like Witex's Comfort Collections featuring Silent Comfort backing or Shaw's VersaLock SilentStep Plus Premium Attached underlayment. The advantage this feature brings to the retailer is reduction of waste and less need to inventory bulky rolls of underlayment that are hard to store and often receive damage during shipping and handling.

As the product features I've addressed here attest, the reality of laminate flooring is that the product has greatly improved in the last few years. Not only has laminate flooring become more installer friendly, it is now truly a DIY product that can reap huge profits. The warranties are stronger and the performance characteristics have improved from wear to moisture resistance.

Don't be misled by the entry-level product's quality. Remember, if you're only selling on the basis of price, there will always be some competitor who will sell even cheaper. Instead, I urge you to add value by selling the features and benefits of this phenomenal product category, and increase margins on the basis of recent enhancements that have made laminate a better product.

Laminate flooring -- for better or worse? The facts say it's definitely for the better!