Surfaces '07: Shifts seen in flooring leave showgoers 'cautiously upbeat'
March 15, 2007
Best Surfaces ever? Probably not. But despite concern that today’s market conditions are making the climb a little steeper, last month’s meeting in Las Vegas offered ample evidence that the flooring industry continues to advance on the strength of product innovation and marketing savvy.
The consensus at Surfaces ’07 was that the industry is still moving forward-just not quite at the breakneck pace seen a year or two ago.
“The mood of the industry could be best described as cautiously upbeat,” said D. Christopher Davis, president and ceo of the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), the show’s official sponsor. “While residential replacement has slowed down in some areas of the country, our industry is coming off one of the longest and largest boons in years, and despite the slowdown, it is still strong, relatively speaking.
“It’s different than a year ago,” continued Davis reflecting on Surfaces ’06. “Then, we were discussing a potential slowdown on the residential and builder side, and now we are actually living with it.”
Although the show’s organizer, Hanley Wood, had yet to release a final attendance figure at press time, show officials said they expected the figure to be off about 5 percent from last year’s record figure of more than 43,000 attendees. Still, many veteran showgoers observed that traffic seemed much lighter than recent years, particularly on the final day of the four-day event. Factors such as foul weather in many parts of the country and competition from the International Builder’s Show which was being held simultaneously in Orlando may have contributed to the fall off in attendance. As a result, even the most prominent retailers acknowledged that a dip in many segments of the business was apparent on the show floor.
“I sensed a mood of caution, of concern,” observed Robert A. Hill, a veteran retailer who last year was also elected chairman of the WFCA. “Business is off 10% to 15% for many of us. Builder collections are slow. Retail traffic is soft. Marginal dealers are closing their doors. Established dealers are trimming their overhead. Manufacturers and suppliers are willing and eager to negotiate.”
Hill, the founder and chairman of Floor Covering Associates, which includes six floor covering stores in the Midwest, said business realities have affected the way he and his colleagues on the retail side work the show. “The biggest challenge for us is to choose the right products at the right prices in order to have a balanced offering for our consumers. We no longer have the luxury of being carefree about our buying.”
As has been the case in almost every Surfaces in recent years, retailers said they were highly impressed with the wealth of new products. This year there was particular praise for two of the industry’s hottest categories: laminate and hardwood. Emerging digital technology has enabled manufacturers to fine tune their offerings. Darker colors, wider widths and highly authentic visuals are driving the category. In hardwood, glueless installation and the rapid growth in exotics species are bring new life to one of the industry’s most well-established categories.
“It’s no longer just oak, oak, oak.” observed Bob Kerr, of House of Carpets Carpet One in Modesto, Cailf. “We are seeing a lot more exotics, including handscraped exotics. And we are seeing more and more hardwood flooring that can be installed with a click. And yes, laminate is great. The products have never looked better, but laminate is still highly price-driven
Others confessed to be a bit overwhelmed by the breadth of selection at the show. “I’ve been dealing with wood for years and years and years, but there’s 20 times more wood here than I can even imagine,” said Rudy Anguiano, vp of Wood Floors Etc. of Plano, Texas.
Exhibitors large and small said they were encouraged by the conversations they had with retailers. Although the consensus is that the flooring business is being challenged on a number of fronts, the market conditions put a premium on innovation.
Seated in a portion of the Milliken’s exhibit that was dubbed a “Mancave” because of a sleek-looking bar with beer on tap, flat screen TVs and a foosball table game available, the president of Milliken Floor Covering Division Dave Caples said it was all about breaking through and reaching the consumer.
“There are many reasons to be optimistic,” said Caples, whose company was promoting a new approach to adding color to carpet. “We are seeing the convergence of different technologies and we have started looking at different approaches to manufacturing our carpet and better use of color, textures and patterns. And of course the No. 1 challenge is addressing environmental concerns. Flooring customers today are very educated. We are here to say we have what your customers are looking for.”
Retailers on Surfaces: ‘We've never been disappointed'After three days of walking, talking and more walking, retailers on hand at Surfaces ‘07 generally agreed that this show has never had greater relevance for their business. At a time when new challenges are emerging and a number of groundbreaking product advancements are taking hold, there was wide agreement among store owners that their long trek around the cavernous convention center was well worth it.
“We’ve never been disappointed,” said Art Kassabian, owner of Atlas Marble, in Metuchen, N.J., while taking a break from a busy schedule of meetings on the show floor. “We always come to Surfaces looking for new products or accessories that will set us apart from other retailers in our area. Our sales have increased each year because we turn around and apply what we learned here and implement the changes when we get home.”
Those relatively new to the business said the show could be a bit overwhelming, but generally agreed that there is no better way to get a handle on floor covering than the show in Las Vegas. Justin Holbert, of True Hardwoods Inc., Calhoun, Ga., said he made the trip primarily to look for ways to grow his year-old business. He was so impressed with what he found that he was contemplating more involvement in the show next year. “I’m here to check out the new hardwood and carpet lines,” said Holbert. “Now we want to see whether we might want to set up an exhibit ourselves next year.”
For Hank Richardson, of R & S Flooring in Albuquerque, the show’s appeal did not stop at the expansive show floor. “I think the most important part of the show, aside from all the products being exhibited, are the various seminars and workshops. If you take the time to listen to what many of these speakers are telling you, then you can set yourself apart. It took me a while to do this, but upselling to my current customer base instead of wasting precious resources finding and bringing new clients has turned things around for us.”
A number of distributors on hand also agreed that the show helps them assess business conditions. “It’s been enlightening,” observed Rich Meissner, vp of operations for Saint Paul-based distributor Hank’s Specialties Inc., while relaxing at a private Johnsonite gathering for distributors. “I’m seeing new products and new designs both in this room and at the show that could very well signal a new direction in commercial flooring, with more integration between products and a larger sense of style.”
Regardless of their game plan and their level of stamina, attendees readily acknowledged that one person cannot be expected to absorb it all. “You know what impresses me the most at this show?” asked Robert A. Hill, a retailer with six stores who is also chairman of the WFCA. “It is the sheer magnitude of this industry – the huge number of exhibitors. If Surfaces lasted two weeks and my feet could take it, I still couldn’t talk to everyone and see everything I’d like to see.”
Exhibitors say show is still their top stageManufacturers and other exhibitors at Surfaces ‘07 agreed that the annual meeting proved once again why it is the top venue for showcasing new floor covering products. A chief benefit, many said, was the number of “walk-ins” that amble into an exhibit in the hope of finding something new and different.
“Surfaces gives us a great foothold,” said Mark Clayton, exec vp of marketing for carpet maker Beaulieu of America, pausing between meeting with potential customers. He noted the personal one-on-one contact with dealers in his exhibit enables him to shorten the time it takes for new products to reach consumers. “Because of this show, we’re already filling orders and will start selling these products next month instead of a couple months down the line,” he said.
Christine Whittemore, director of In-Store Innovation for Solutia’s Wear-Dated carpet fiber, noted that Surfaces is an important show across all flooring categories, but remains especially pertinent to fiber suppliers and carpet manufacturers. “Hard surfaces have been getting a lot of attention recently, but there’s also so much innovation happening in broadloom,” she said. “It’s important for us to get the word out, and Surfaces is the perfect venue.”
Even those with modest exhibits said they are able to gain exposure for niche products. Marlene Pearson of Beno J. Gundlach Co. in Belleville, Ill., said she was pleased to see the interest generated by the new Glue 2 Applicator System displayed by her company at the show. “This is where everyone comes to touch, feel, see and actually try a new product.” She added that Surfaces ‘07 was her company’s most successful show yet.
“It’s a great place to tell your story,” agreed Paul Laporte, national sales manager for Canadian laminate maker Lamwood. “It gives us the chance to show our products, get our name out there and build brand recognition.”
Remembering Howard Olansky
MAPEI's Blair: Downturn in construction won't hurt usStanding before a chart illustrating an abrupt shift downward in the construction segment, MAPEI Americas president and ceo, Rainer M. Blair said he was unconcerned. Although demand for the company’s installation products is closely tied to growth in construction, Blair assured that the downward trend was not unexpected after years of skyward growth. More importantly, he said, the company’s significant investments in R&D during the boon years have paid off in the form of products that will defy fluctuations in other segments.
“It’s a small downturn, a blip on the radar,” said Blair, who joined the company in mid-2006, succeeding Nick Di Tempora, who retired last year but remains active on the company’s board. “We are extremely bullish because we are bringing products to the market that set us apart. These are products that reduce the number of callbacks and add value to the project over time. There is an adjustment in the [construction] market but we are predicting growth because we have set ourselves apart.”
One example noted at the early morning press conference was MAPEI’s “fresh grout color palette,” which is being expanded to 36 colors, including 14 colors selected based on their popularity in interior home décor. The expanded array of options was developed by MAPEI with the help of a styling and coloring expert in the hope of creating excitement in a well-established category.
“No one is putting out products like we are,” said Blair, who joined MAPEI after 16 years with BASF Corp, where he most recently served as a group vice president. “MAPEI is on the move.”