Congoleum’s Leonard Ludovico shows off the company’s new DuraPlank designs.

Distributors and Congoleum reps mingle at a product showcase during the company’s recent meeting in Princeton, N.J.

The continuing quest for vinyl flooring that captures the look and versatility of hardwood took a new turn at Congoleum’s recent distributor meeting in Princeton, N.J. The company marked its entry into a new area of hard surface with the unveiling of a  DuraPlank line that is designed to be installed the way most hardwood is installed: one plank at a time.

Also topping the agenda at the meeting was another new direction for Congoleum: the company said it will begin offering fiberglass-backed resilient product. The new line, AirStep, is set to launch in March 2008 in two price-points and 30 SKUs. A chief selling point is an in-store display system that is designed to be set up in as little as five minutes.

            The one-day event, which also included the unveiling of the mid price-point Bravada line, drew more than 40 attendees from 12 major distributors. Congoleum noted that new items unveiled at the early October event would help combat the downturn in the housing market.

“Yes, sales in the industry have been soft,” acknowledged Dennis Jarosz, senior vp of sales and marketing for Congoleum. “That’s why we’re having this meeting in the first week of October. We want our distributors and retailers to have a jump on the fall selling season. These new products are about giving distributors and retailers the tools they need to drive sales.”

Several distributors on hand were clearly impressed by the DuraPlank line, noting that it offers a level of versatility that is likely to generate interest among  consumers. Offered in walnut, oak and cypress visuals in nine colors, each DuraPlank is a 4 1/2” by 36” vinyl plank. As such the product can be mixed and matched with DuraCeramic products for greater design flexibility.

Jim Nagel of longtime Congoleum distributor Tri-State Wholesale Flooring in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he is sure the line will be a hit in his market. “It is the best thing I’ve seen here,” he said while browsing a showcase of new products from the company. “DuraCeramic is really big for us, and I think the market is ready for this next step.”

Also catching Nagel’s eye was the company’s introduction of Underflor underlayment, which represents a rebranding of Congoleum’s 30-year-old SU-1 felt sundry material. He noted that it would appeal to consumers seeking a cost-effective way to install high-end resilient as a floating floor. “We have some new territory and we’re getting some resistance because of installation costs,” he said. “Underflor should change that.”

Lawrence C. Broad, chairman of Baltimore distributor Roesel-Heck Co., also had a thumbs up for the Underflor underlayment, which is designed for use with Congoleum’s “Dura” lines of high-end flooring. Still he added that retailers would need to be trained in how to sell the product, which has been marketed in the past as a crack suppressant material. “Underflor will give consumers more choice with their floors, but retailers will definitely have to let them know about the advantages,” he said. “They won’t know on their own.”

For Steve Cratch, Mohawk Industries' Northeast general manager for manufacturer, it was AirStep that drew his interest. He noted that it was a welcome addition to the growing fiberglass-backed market. Like many on hand he was wooed by the prospect of a display that can be set up in a matter of minutes. “AirStep is going to be a player in the market,” Cratch predicted. “Consumers have been asking for it, and Congoleum is going to deliver.”

Also launched at the gathering was Bravada, a mid price-point line available in nine designs and 28 colors. Included are natural looks-wood, slate and natural stone-as well as abstract designs including checkerboards, floral patterns and geometrics. Leonard Ludovico, Congoleum’s vp of product styling and design, said the wide range of looks are a major selling point. “The whole idea behind this line is to give the public the looks they can be comfortable with,” he noted. “All the styling in this line benefits from better reproduction and the best digital information available. That character gives Bravada a sort of third dimension and beautiful value.”

Eyeing one of the retro-inspired checkerboard visuals, Don Wahlfarth Sr., CEO of Bayard Sales Corp. in Middletown, Pa., said he was certain other retro looks would reappear in the market soon.

“Right now wood and ceramic looks are really hot, but years ago it was brick. And brick will come back,” he said. “You can quote me on that.”