Shaw Hard Surfaces' Brazilian Cherry, Polynesia color

Mannington Mills' South Island Burlwood from the Revolutions Plank collection

The growing importance of laminate flooring was readily apparent last month when Mohawk Industries agreed to spend $2.6 billion to acquire the parent company of Quick-Step, a top laminate maker in the U.S. Although the deal has a number of elements that go beyond laminate flooring, Mohawk's decision to buy Belgium-based Unilin Holding NV was largely based on the category's past performance and future potential.

The results of our new survey suggest that Mohawk's enthusiasm for laminate flooring is well founded. Overwhelmingly, retailer/contractors told us they view laminate as a profit-making, worry-free product area that continues to grow, yet requires a relatively small amount of selling space at retail. Those participating in National Floor Trends' Laminate Flooring Market Study indicated that the category is gaining ground on the strength of better quality products that are esthetically appealing and much easier to install.

Quick-Step Country Collection Hickory Natural Planks from Unilin Flooring

While laminate flooring may still draw a few complaints about the "hollow sound" it makes when walked on or the perception that it is susceptible to scratches, it is increasingly clear that manufacturers have worked to make the product more appealing and more accessible. Specifically, laminate pieces that snap together have rendered glue-down products all but obsolete.

The survey found that 90 % of the laminate flooring now sold is "glueless." Also, given that retailers said a typical laminate purchase is about $1,500, it remains an affordable flooring option for many consumers.

Perhaps most notably, eight out of 10 retailer/contractors said they consider laminate to be a profitable alternative to ceramic, stone, wood or vinyl floor covering. Moreover, 77% of the respondents said they often or always recommend products in the category while 83% reported that they seldom or never hear consumer complaints about it.

When asked to name their top selling laminate brand, the respondents collectively identified 14 separate suppliers. The clear leaders were Wilsonart, which was named as the No.1 brand among 22% of respondents, and Quick-Step, which was ranked in the top slot by 20%. Shaw, with 11%, was the only other brand in double-digits followed by Mannington and Pergo, which each had 9%. (Nine other brands collectively accounted for the remaining 18% of the responses.)

BHK Moderna Lifestyle Handscraped Cottage Oak

Asked to cite the specific attributes that drive their No.1 brand's popularity, respondents said Wilsonart earned high marks for its quality, name recognition, and ease of installation. Interestingly, while "price" was not among any of the 30 specific reasons offered to explain Wilsonart's top position, it was the prime reason cited for the popularity of both Quick-Step and Shaw products.

Asked what qualities (other than price) are most likely to compel them to promote a particular brand, respondents focused on two key areas: product quality and ease of installation. Although the style and design of a product was named as the third most popular reason, it was still well behind the top two answers. Also of note: less than one-fourth of the respondents identified support from a sales rep or the involvement of an incentive program as a primary reason to trumpet a specific brand.

Those who are in close contact with consumers shopping for laminate flooring also said that the product characteristic consumers find most appealing is durability. Other attributes, including quality, selection/styling, maintenance and price were not nearly as prevalent. Even so, whatever perceptions consumers have about laminate, it is clear that the sellers believe they have some sway with the buyers.

Nearly half of the respondents said they are able to persuade customers to buy a specific product or brand even if the customer had a different one in mind when the process began.

Retailers also indicated that it does not require a significant amount of floor space to give laminate products a presence in the store. Nearly 60% of those responding said they devote less than 10% of their display area to laminate, while another 17% said it was 11 to 15%.

Although the report offers an encouraging portrait of the laminate category, there are a few rough spots. As is the case with many floor covering areas, there is concern that big box retailers are zeroing in on an area that has traditionally been the domain of specialty stores. When asked which issues now affect their laminate business, the answer most frequently given was the increasing number of big box channels followed by eroding profit margins and increased competition from other flooring channels. Asked to identify the biggest challenges facing laminate flooring manufacturers over the next two years, respondents said product innovation and competition from other hard surfaces.

Installation services were a distant third.

Still, those participating in the survey clearly feel that any bumps in the road will not slow the category's growth-at least not for the remainder of this year. Asked in which direction their business was headed in the near term, 60% said it would increase while 33% said it would stay the same and 7% predicted a dip in sales.

Editor's Note: National Floor Trends commissioned another in our ongoing series of market studies to help flooring retailers/contractors enhance the success and profitability of their businesses. Identifying current product/sales trends and projecting the industry's future direction is imperative to making strategic decisions that ensure growth and prosperity.

Our 2005 Laminate Flooring Market Study is based upon responses from a sample of 1,500 active, qualified flooring dealers/contractors selected on an Nth name basis from the domestic circulation list of NFT subscribers. A 23% response rate by specialty retailers provides the data for this study. The study was designed and conducted by the market research division of BNP Media in conjunction with the editorial staff of National Floor Trends.

The complete 2005 Laminate Flooring Market Study is available for $225 each and $185 for multiple copies.