Safari is a new high-gloss collection of laminate flooring from Shaw. The product includes “enhanced scratch-resistance technology,” according to Shaw.

Like all flooring segments that have taken a hit during these tough economic times, laminate is a category in transition. One top executive estimated that sales for the product will be off by 15 percent this year. Another noted that overall volume may drop as much as 24 percent. Despite the rocky road, laminate makers say the category remains durable, dependable and full of surprises. They point to advances in technology and aesthetics, along with relatively low price points, as reasons why the category will remain a strong contender for the consumer’s dollar - especially for those who increasingly find themselves on a budget.

While laminate price points are often lower than the products they emulate – such as hardwood and ceramic – more consumers are opting for the higher-end, higher ticket items, according to Eric Erickson, Shaw’s laminate product category manager. Rustic, exotic and hand-scraped visuals are all selling well, as are planks with a high gloss piano finish, he says, adding, “Our most fashion-forward products are doing quite well.”

BHK of America offers the Moderna Perfection range of laminate flooring. Seen here is a “Special Edition” coffeehouse color in the line.

He says he is not surprised by the focus on higher-end products. “Pretty sells,” he notes matter-of-factly. “If you have the right products, style and fashion, people will pay the money for it. I really think that retailers are trying to sell laminates as more unique, fashion-forward products. It gets people out of the nickel and dime conversation.”

He also credits advances in digital technology and embossing for making the products more authentic. He notes that his company’s recent acquisition of Anderson Hardwood has been a shot in the arm for Shaw’s efforts in the laminate category. “With them being a part of the team we can see firsthand how they’re doing wood designs, and it allows us to bring those characteristics – such as chatter marks and unique scrapings – into our laminate floors,” Erickson says.

Roger Farabee, vp marketing for Quick-Step, agrees that the enhanced looks and superior performance are keeping the category fresh. “One of the great things about laminate is you can apply technology in so many different ways – they are products that are not only realistic, but can offer features you just can’t get from the [natural] products.”

For example, he notes, his products offer anti-static properties, which helps keep indoor allergies down because the flooring “doesn’t attract dirt and dust.” Additionally, since laminate is an engineered product “we can offer choices and a wide variety of looks, and adopt to different decorating styles quickly.”

He predicts that new laminate products set to launch at Surfaces early next year in Las Vegas will not only incorporate rustic and high gloss looks, but a more minimal, stripped down approach. “Those are strong trends we are seeing in Europe, and those trends always eventually find their way to the North American market,” he notes.

Enhancements in the category also go beyond the look of the product, says George Kelley, CEO of Pergo. He says that his company is looking into adding antimicrobial protection to its floors, and is also examining “going from beveled edges to crimped edges.”

“Companies have to be creative about where their differentiation points are,” he says. “There are a number of things you have to address when talking about innovation besides decor.”

Kelley also sees the segment changing in other ways. Traditionally, the laminate category follows an “hourglass” trend, where the lowest and highest ends of the category prosper, squeezing the middle price points. But with raw material costs continuing to escalate, he says that may soon change.

“Because of raw material cost increases, we’re all seeing the bottom end of the offerings under pressure to lift,” he says. “At some point, it doesn’t make sense to continue producing lower-end products because of the cost, pure and simple. I think you’re going to start seeing manufacturers recreating their middle product offerings, and that’s where you’re really going to see a lot of product differentiations.”