Linesse from Quick-Step features the company’s Unilink technology, designed to offer a more realistic narrow strip look in laminate flooring.

While design innovation has long been a top priority for laminate makers, they agree that the focus on fashion is changing the complexion of the category. In a trend some manufacturers call “negative growth,” they note that interest in high-end product has been rising, though it has not been enough to offset sluggish market conditions in the overall laminate business.

The emergence of upscale products is no surprise to Milton Goodwin, Armstrong’s laminate product manager. Like many other areas of fashion, consumers are drawn to looks that are compelling, creative and unlike what they have seen before.  “Significant growth in the segment is driven by product styling, design and innovation,” he said. “Speaking strictly for Armstrong, we believe that product styling and design is everything in the category. It’s what the consumer sees first and what she understands.”

Pictured is Pergo’s Vintage Home in Natural Harborside Hickory. The laminate floor offers a unique look in a durable construction, the company says.

Those involved in the category note that product crafted to look exotic, distressed or hand-scraped has been a staple of high-end laminate for several years. And the success has emboldened designers. The newest looks, many created with the help of the latest digital imaging technologies, place a premium on realism. This is why more product is featuring authentic-looking chatter marks as well as more realistic tile visuals. The hope is the new options will expand the category and draw in more consumers who may have leaning toward hardwood or tile. 

Al Boulogne, Mannington’s manager, laminate business, said there is another look generating excitement. “We’re seeing lots of interest in the high-clarity, ‘piano-smooth’ finish floors,” he said. “Mannington introduced the Diamond Bay collection of high-clarity looks at Surfaces this year, and it got a great reception.”

Another hot look is “soft-scraped,” manufacturers say. These floors offer hand-scraped visuals, but with a softer, subtler approach. It tones down on the scraping while still offering a unique look, according to Dennis Szczybor, Mohawk’s director of product management for hard surfaces.

“Soft-scrape products provide an almost perfect replica of real hardwood,” he said. “It is extremely important to continue to introduce innovative looks - we are a fashion business and laminate provides a value-driven alternative to many of the upscale hardwood looks.”

Mindful that many consumers are scaling back on spending, manufacturers say they are not inclined to sit back and wait for the economy to improve. They note that focusing on innovation will enable the segment to weather this rough patch.

“Sales are where we predicted they would be during this tough market  cycle, and manufacturers continue to bring innovation to the segment,” said Ken Freedman, vp sales for Faus. “We are optimistic the industry will rebound within the upcoming year or two.”

Manufacturers also agree that a crucial component to future growth has more to do with technology than the economy. Perhaps more so than any other category, laminate has benefited from emerging technology that has facilitated improvements in the look of the product. The result is flooring that looks realistic and even feels authentic.

“We think innovation is extremely important,” commented Ken Peden, COO of Kronotex USA, which makes Formica Flooring. “Products with texturing are in high demand. Consumers have also been very receptive to the high gloss products.”

The Olive Tree Lucca visual from Fausfloor features a distinctive exotic look that is not widely available as a hardwood floor, Faus notes.

Apart from imaging technology, advances in the construction of the plank itself are also vital to the category’s progress. Faus is well known for pioneering such technologies as Embossed-in-Register, InterPlank Design and MicroBevel. Juan Flores, Faus’ president, said this type of approach helps keep a well-established category fresh and exciting.

“Technology is a critical factor in the growth of the laminate flooring segment,” said Flores. “Continual innovation means new designs, versatility, resilience and easier installation.”

Roger Farabee, vp marketing for Quick-Step, would agree. Pointing to his company’s Linesse line, which uses Unilink technology to achieve a narrow, staggered plank look, Farabee notes that consumers are always searching for the latest thing.

“As more consumers see the innovative products available today and what a great combination of style and price they offer, they are seeing laminate flooring as a highly attractive flooring choice,” he said.

Ease of installation is also an area of continued focus As it stands, “click” installations have become the de facto standard for laminate. The challenge now is for laminate makers to find enhancements that make their installation systems stand out in a cluttered field.

Eric Erickson, laminate product manager for Shaw Industries, said the company’s  new LocNPlace installation system may be a big jump forward. “LocNPlace is a great innovation because installation is a simple single-action angle and drop. The ends of the laminate click vertically. There is no need for a hammer and tapping block,” he assured.

Naturally, innovation has little meaning if it is not noticed by the consumer. As such, efforts to refine the category have even extended to marketing and merchandising. Cindy Thornton, marketing manager of Alloc and Berry Floor, notes that her efforts to advance the two brands have involved new ways to reach consumers. 

“We are creating innovations in how we sell and present our products-to our direct customers and to our end-users,” she said. “For example, we’ve created a new online design tool, as well as in-store video kiosks. These new tactics help share our message in innovative ways.”

Even as they express concern about current market conditions, manufacturers are confident that the innovations will position the category for long-term growth. They note that as more consumers come to fully appreciate the latest generation of laminate product, the category will see a groundswell of interest. 

As Pergo’s director of marketing, David Small, puts it: “Consumer awareness and consideration of laminate flooring continues to grow. New printing and performance technologies are yielding superior products with more realistic designs and better performance features. More overall retail space is being dedicated to laminate flooring among traditional retailers and new outlets are continuing to develop.”