In the Lap of Laminate: As words like ‘upscale' and ‘sophisticated' help redefine the category, high-end consumers take notice
November 13, 2007
A visitor to Cape Cod shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting Steve Luciani, a local flooring retailer who is also a big fan of laminate flooring. They can see him tooling around town in a canary yellow 1934 Ford pickup with gold trim. Luciani, the owner of Coachlight Carpets in Centerville, Mass., says he has driven the vintage truck to jobsites for 32 years. It’s good advertising, he says.
The retailer may love that trusty old truck, but some things do change. While the pick-up has remained a fixture of this affluent New England town for decades, its owner saw fit to make a slight adjustment. After Luciani emerged as one of the top sellers of Pergo laminate flooring he decided to pay homage to the flooring-and the company- that has been the backbone of his business for over a decade. He updated the license plate to say “PERGO1.” He went on to install similar vanity plates on his three other trucks.
“Laminate flooring from Pergo and a few other brands make up about 45 percent of my total business,” says the retailer, who notes that the addition of laminate flooring moved his business forward as assuredly as his aging Ford. Asked about the license plates he explains, “I was very heavy into Pergo. I was leader on the Cape and in New England. I delved into it and committed myself to it. I’m still heavy into the product. “
While devotion to the category and one manufacturer in particular may set Coachlight Carpets apart, the embrace of laminate is hardly unique among flooring retailers-particularly those catering to upscale consumers. There is wide agreement that high-end laminate is one of the industry’s hottest categories. It remains one of the few segments of flooring that hasn’t felt the sting of the slumping housing market. Retailers involved in the category say laminate remains a popular choice for remodeling projects and tends to be less vulnerable to the whims of the real estate market.
For their part, manufacturers say that’s only part of the story. The reason upscale shoppers in Cape Cod and other affluent areas are looking to laminate has more to do with the latest generation of product. Advanced imaging technology and a commitment to creating laminate product that is durable and easy to install have helped drive the category. Manufacturers say today’s consumer may be inspired to move to laminate after seeing a look they like in another, more costly area of hard surface.
“Generally speaking, exotics are becoming more popular because consumers are becoming more aware of them through trends in natural wood,” says Bob Langstaff, product development manager for Unilin Flooring (which includes Quick-Step). “What we’re seeing now in the laminate segment is better authenticity and more realism.”
“People are going for more refined looks,” notes Natalia Smith, flooring manager for Wilsonart. She points to micro-beveling as one of the recent advances in laminate flooring technology. Simply put, micro-beveling creates the illusions of depth in a plank or tile by adding subtle beveling to the edges. The bevels not only add dimension to the laminate looks, but also serve to hide the joints from one piece of flooring to another, she notes. Most major manufacturers now offer micro-bevels in their upper-end products.
Al Boulogne, laminate product manager for Mannington, describes the advances as a “drive toward realism.” Aided by the same technology that has made digital imaging possible, upper-end floors are benefiting from a painstaking attention to detail, all aimed at creating the most realistic looks possible, he says.
“This past year we took that whole rustic look to a whole new level with the introduction of Heritage Cherry laminate flooring,” the Mannington executive says. “It has a hand-scraped look, but more subtle, with real deep textures and deep character in certain places. We were even able to differentiate the gloss to give the illusion of really deep knotholes. That’s thanks to recent technology. We couldn’t make something this realistic-looking even a few years ago.”
The focus on the upper-end product, he explains, has left a dwindling number of selections in the mid-price range. Other manufacturers agree. The consensus is that laminate has increasingly become the province of upscale products that offer strong visuals and less expensive imported product.
“This is something you see in a lot of established markets,” relates Don Cybalski, senior creative director for Pergo. “It’s called an hourglass economy, and it’s definitely happening in laminate.” He notes that manufacturers eager to be associated with high-end products are inclined to move away from other price points. “You cannot identify yourself as high quality and then also pop out lower-end entries,” Cybalski says. He notes that those in the market for bargain priced laminate will not be disappointed. “There are plenty of mass producers who would rather play the volume game.”
While the shifts seen in the market have been largely driven by technology, Cybalski assures that, from a marketing standpoint, there will “always be a need” for the middle price point. That way, consumers looking at lower-end ranges can have something to trade up to. At the same time, shoppers considering upper-end looks will have a better standard of comparison when offered a good-better-best scenario.
Milton Goodwin, general manager of Armstrong laminate products, points out that consumers have grown more sophisticated about selection. As a result, he says, Armstrong’s heritage in the hardwood business has given the company an edge. “They just don’t want standard oak visuals,” he says. “They are definitely looking more closely at exotics. And because we work so closely with wood every day, we feel we have a competitive advantage in creating unique exotics.”
“Unique” is certainly the category’s buzzword. Sensing increased opportunity in the higher-end lines, the race to introduce eye-catching new laminate has intensified. Along the way laminate makers have come to use descriptions that may not in the past have been associated with man-made product. For example, Reiner Kamp, president of BHK of America, which makes Moderna brand flooring describes his company’s line as such: “Along with the exotic species from Asia, Africa and South America, traditional species continue to be of great importance in our lineup to meet consumer demands.”
For retailers, the challenge is to incorporate high-end looks while still appealing to the cash-and-carry do-it-yourselfers who still favor laminate because it is practical and inexpensive. Through it all, specialty store owners say they want to set themselves apart by offering both quality products and floor covering expertise not typically found among big box stores.
“We do very little of the low end,” confirms Mike Montgomery, co-owner of Montgomery’s CarpetsPlus Color Tile in Venice, Fla. He adds that inferior product will ultimately reflect poorly on his operation. “If we’re going to put something in, we’re going to stand by it.”
While his approach is typical of retailers who focus on residential customers, the builder side of the equation is not so cut and dry. Steve Urlacher, a divisional director for Super Floors in Kent, Wash., observes that builders who opt for laminate usually go with lower and middle end laminate lines. If they wanted something more striking, they will move up to hardwood or ceramic.
“Builder-based spec work is on the lower end, but even then it’s mixed,” he says. “We sell quite a bit of 7 to 8 mil, which is the base grade. We move a lot in the 8 to 10 mil as well. But we do very little in the high-end 12 mil. Because at that point, builders probably already have a real wood in mind that will fit that price group.”
The gains seen throughout the category may be encouraging to companies vying for market share. They have also looking for novel ways to stand out from the pack.
Faus, for example, recently introduced a 16” porcelain visual. The company’s product development director, Steve Ehrlich, says the new entry can best be described in two simple words: “Highly realistic.” The objective he says is to develop products that are not duplicated anywhere else. He says another consideration is geography.
“Laminate is a very regional business and one of our goals it to regionalize the product mix as much as we can,” Ehrlich says. “We’re keeping this in mind as we continue to develop products. For example, we’re going to include more upscale soft-scrape looks and subtler exotics.”
Although talk in the laminate category has been about the enhanced ascetics, Shaw Industries says it has another weapon in its arsenal: a new Loc N Place installation system that requires a single action. Eric Erickson, Shaw’s laminate category manager, notes that it makes installation easier than ever because the product only needs to be aligned on one side and then dropped into place.
Erickson says the company wants to address one of the most persistent issues concerning large format laminate. “Laminate is harder to install the larger it gets,” he says. “With Loc N Place, the wider the width, the easier ir becomes to lock a product in place. You no longer need to use tapping blocks and pull bars.” Using the same technology, Shaw plans to launch 8” visuals in wood and 12” and 16” visuals predominately in tile.
While new technologies are expected to further increase the appeal of laminate flooring, other less advanced elements are also catching the eye of retailers. Asked to identify the biggest innovation in laminate in recent years, Larry Sacco, manager of Ted Smith Floor Products in Sinking Spring, Pa., notes that it was simply a wafer thin layer of cushion that made it nicer to walk on.
“Pergo’s Vintage Home laminate is my favorite product, and that’s because Pergo put an attached back on the line,” he says. “That to me has been the biggest advance in laminate.”
Tim Tipton, director of marketing and product development for Formica Flooring, agrees that it’s often the small touches that give life to a new product competing in a highly mature category of flooring.
“Manufacturers have a tendency to over think the category,” he allows. “The level of choice can sometimes be absolutely confusing. But I think the manufacturers that become vertically integrated are going to become more efficient. Laminate remains an unbelievably innovative product. We’re all just going to get better at what we do.”