Bamboo: State of the industry- Manufacturers step up commitment to innovation

October 16, 2015

October 12/19; Volume 30/Number 9

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 1.36.50 PM Bamboo is among the most versatile, rapidly renewable and environmentally friendly natural resources on the planet. When used for flooring, bamboo provides distinctive visuals at a price less than most hardwood options. With that, bamboo remains a relevant product category.

Although bamboo is a grass, as a flooring material it is classified with hardwood. According to the latest market data, bamboo currently accounts for about 2% of total hardwood sales, or around $50 million, down slightly from 2.5% in 2014. The category’s most recent high point was in 2012 when it reached 6% of hardwood sales before trending downward.

When bamboo is used in the U.S. there seems to be a shift from solid construction bamboo to engineered strand. In the strand-woven process, strips of bamboo are coated with resins and then compressed with heat to form timbers. These timbers are then milled into flooring. This process produces bamboo flooring that is said to be twice as hard as traditional solid bamboo. According to executives, the benefit of an engineered strand is greater dimensional stability, which in turn allows bamboo flooring to be used in any climate and makes it attractive for commercial applications, where it is especially popular in specified commercial because of its green story.

The growth in engineered strand has necessitated a change in installation methods; five years ago, approximately 90% of bamboo installation was tongue and grove, in which the floor is nailed down, whereas 80% today is click/floating.

Experts chime in

Still a viable supplier of bamboo flooring, USFloors launched with the category when it started in 2001. While the company is best known for its COREtec Plus resilient composite product, as well as cork and engineered hardwood, it maintains a significant presence in bamboo with more than 60 SKUs.

“Bamboo is not for the faint of heart,” said Sam Ruble, vice president of sales at USFloors. “You either are all-in or you are not in the category, and we chose to take a leadership position.”

USFloors’ Muse collection—an engineered strand construction on an HDF core—is suitable for homes in high humidity areas as well as dry climates. “We market it as an all-climate strand,” Ruble said. “It doesn’t have the challenges that a solid bamboo product would have [in terms of stability.]”

Many of the problems surrounding the performance of bamboo flooring have centered on solid strand click products, according to Steve Wagner, director of marketing at Wellmade Performance Floors. “As with any flooring product it is essential to follow acclimation and installation recommendations that each manufacturer provides,” he said. “Technical support is also available from reputable manufacturers.”

Jeff Goldberg, founder and CEO of Cali Bamboo, noted a common misconception with bamboo flooring is that it expands and contracts more drastically than typical hardwood flooring. “Bamboo actually behaves no different than other hardwoods. As long as the flooring is properly acclimated, you should not have any problems. We recommend acclimating your floor for a minimum of five days, although more time is needed for extreme climates.”

While bamboo is a niche product, David Keegan, chief operating officer of Bamboo Hardwoods, said it nonetheless offers distributors and dealers a revenue opportunity with a uniquely different product. “When the economy was down it was harder for distributors to invest time and money into bamboo because it takes resources to do that. Distributors are feeling much safer now and more comfortable in investing and stocking more SKScreen Shot 2015-10-16 at 1.36.44 PMUs. We have more displays in the field than ever before and that translates into sales.”

In store, the majority of flooring dealers segregate bamboo from their hardwood selections. “It is often placed in a dusty, green corner with cork,” Keegan said. Some dealers have started to incorporate bamboo into hardwood sections and in turn have been rewarded with higher sales as a result. He implores other dealers to follow that lead.

The right placement, promotion and exposure help consumers see bamboo for the desirable product it truly is. “The problem bamboo has faced—and you will hear horror stories—is when it is not installed right,” Keegan said. “It is such a good product when done right. I am happy to have lower quality manufacturers drop out because they were the ones who weren’t doing a good job.”

What’s trending

As with any category, the future of bamboo hinges on style, innovation and performance. New products coupled with bamboo’s inherent green story will continue to be the key selling points at retail, executives said. With strand woven in particular, manufacturers are adding distressing and scraping elements to create exotic looks, blending colors and lengths of bamboo strips.

Wagner said carbonized strand has been a consistent seller for Wellmade. “The product has a character-driven visual that is very appealing, with hues of honey oak and packaged with multiple shades in each carton. We are trying to design products based on customer feedback, and not just jamming something down their throats.” Wellmade recently introduced a new collection of fully modular bamboo parquet tiles that integrate with its engineered strand products. The tiles may be used for borders and inlays or for the entire floor.

Keegan said Bamboo Hardwoods has gotten positive retail feedback on its engineered Manor line, which is made with extremely hard, strand woven bamboo in the style of traditional hickory flooring.

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