LANCASTER, PA.—When consumers reach into their wallets these days, the one commonality they seek is value. Recognizing this, Armstrong has invested $26 million in a flooring category that may be more synonymous with value than any other: fiberglass-backed resilient sheet.
By virtue of that expenditure, Armstrong is embarking on what Kevin Biedermann, vice president, residential product management, calls one of the biggest product launches in company history. How does the mill define biggest? In a word, impact. “It is the biggest in terms of breadth of the line—64 designs across 232 SKUs—in terms of the merchandising behind it—a $999 display in a 14-foot format—in terms of the media campaign, in terms of putting $26 million into a facility,” he said. “So it’s the biggest in terms of spending, reach and breadth.”
The new fiberglass facility is home to the “first and only continuous linked line in the U.S. at almost a mile long,” he said. “It starts with the fiberglass carrier and ends with inspection, cutting and packaging, maximizing effectiveness and efficiency.”
With 80% of the sheet market still embedded in felt backing, this type of investment in fiberglass could seem anything but prudent. However, Armstrong expects fiberglass will continue to gain market share at the expense of felt, much like glueless laminate did at the beginning of the decade at the expense of gluedown. In fact, the expectation is that fiberglass will account for 23% to 24% of resilient sheet’s market share in 2010.
Revamped sheet lineup
As such, Armstrong’s resilient sheet portfolio will address the changing landscape. For 2011, felt-backed SKUs will be reduced from 331 to 180 while fiberglass sheet will grow from 74 to 187 SKUs. (The rock-backed StrataMax remains at 58 SKUs.) More specifically, higher-end felt lines like Natural Fusion will be discontinued over the next six to eight months. Felt will now be merchandised in a good/better/best classification, with StarStep designated as the new high-end collection. Unlike Natural Fusion, which retailed for as high as $4.99 a foot, StarStep should retail between $2.99 and $3.99 with a warranty extension to go from 15 to 20 years.
On the fiberglass side, the two stories are a total revamp of CushionStep and the launch of a new, high-end line called Duality, which not only is a trade up from CushionStep Best, but also replaces high-end felt. “This is the top of the top,” said JoLynne Brew, product manager, resilient sheet.
The CushionStep revamp features 64 new designs. “We are keeping 11 best sellers, adding 22 of the discontinued high-end felt best sellers, along with 21 brand new designs,” Brew said. Some highlights:
- A brand new value line that will replace CushionStep Good in 15 SKUs;
- CleanSweep G reformulated with a UV cure, the only finish that protects against asphalt staining;
- MasterWorks 3D technology, which brings the manufacturer closer to its goal of leading the industry in 3D design through definition, dimension and depth of color;
- Improved registration by 40%, and,
- Antimicrobial protection available on CushionStep Best selections.
Duality touts unmatched durability for a fiberglass floor, Armstrong claims, as evidenced by the results of a proprietary appliance drag test where it out- performed competitors’ similarly priced felt products. Two collections will now constitute a total of 83 SKUs:
- Premium offers a thickness of 80mil with a 20mil wearlayer, Cleansweep G finish, Masterworks 3D technology and ToughGuard Flex vinyl backing;
- Premium Plus offers a thickness of 85mil with a 20mil wearlayer and the same features as Premium but with the addition of antimicrobial protection.
Both CushionStep and Duality benefit from enhanced printing technology courtesy of the $26 million investment. “When we look at the density, registration and depth of ink, we believe quality of print translates into beautiful product and gives us a competitive advantage,” Biedermann said. “We are striving for the consumer to say ‘wow.’” The new facility has 11 print stations that allow five and six print separations, he said.
Aside from aesthetic and performance advantages versus competing products, independent retailers will benefit from a customized package. Specifically, their program will include 433 SKUs while home centers like Home Depot get 85 SKUs and Lowe’s is handed 55 SKUs. Even Flooring America and Carpet One dealers will have a different package. “The goal is to minimize channel conflict under the Armstrong brand,” said Alan Cubell, vice president of residential sales and marketing. “Our independent retailer will have to compete with far fewer showrooms than ever before because they have exclusivity.”
Currently, there is some overlap of Armstrong’s line at home centers, buying groups and independent retailers but going forward, there will be different lines for Carpet One and Flooring America dealers, independent retailers and home centers with different colors and styles.
“No consumer will be able to walk into an independent retailer, home center, Flooring America, Carpet One and shop the SKU number. Our competitors can’t say that,” Cubell said. “We can give independent collections to each of these groups.”
To appeal to the consumer’s sense of style and design, Armstrong designed the new products to correspond to some of the primary trends in home decorating and fashion, said Sara Babinski, principal designer, product styling and design.
Inspired by nature. Any design element that has something to do with nature. One of the newer trends is ode to the elements: wind, rain (and what they do to wood), metal and stone. With that, the antiqued look is hot as seen in Empire Slate in Duality Premium Plus. As well, Bandelier offers a weathered metal look.
Stimulation of the senses. Anything with a gloss effect like patent leather or contrasts in texture. This was the inspiration for Leather in Duality Premium.
Into the woods. There has been popularity simulating wood in textiles including knots and retaining mineral streaks. Armstrong addressed this with Deep Forest in Duality Premium Plus and Rustic Loft in Duality Premium.
Decorator trend. Flea market finds or anything with prints or patterns. This For Armstrong it is found in Alvina in CushionStep Better; Distant Valley modular look, and Scarborough in Duality Premium that has the look of LVT in single sheet flooring.
“It is our design goal to lead the industry and execute that in a manner that is superior to the competition,” said Rod Sosa, technical design manager.
For the first update to Armstrong’s resilient displays in almost 15 years, the new merchandiser was designed to update its dealers’ showrooms in a cost-effective manner. To date, this is one of the most subsidized merchandising efforts ever taken on by Armstrong.
“We knew we had to make the product the star of the new merchandiser and had to come up with ways to do that,” said Ed Sofia, channel marketing manager. To make it retailer and consumer friendly, Armstrong talked with hundreds from both parties for a week, spending at least an hour with each, discussing how they wanted to shop or be shopped, and what they looked to achieve in a flooring store. The result was overwhelmingly a visual preference; slates and stones on one side, wood looks on the other.
With 97% of retailers in the U.S. selling Armstrong vinyl, the mill was confident expanding slightly on its current vinyl footprint of 13 feet to 14 feet. Broken into three separate sections, dealers can buy it in parts or as a whole, but it was designed to be very sustainable on the show floor.
“We’re selling the displays for $999 and have sold 600 since November,” Sofia said. “A dealer who does $10,000 in vinyl business will see a return in one year.”
Distributor J.J. Haines recently launched the line and has reported nothing but positive feedback on the program. “It’s one of the most comprehensive launches I’ve seen in a long time,” said Scott Roy, vice president, sales, calling it a game changer in terms of new product lines, updated visuals and colors, and the point-of-sale display system.
“A large display like that involves a whole marketing program. You automatically become a Preferred Partner with the purchase of the display, plus with the service from J.J.Haines dealers can use those benefits to offset the cost.” Roy added he had seen a lot of success stories selling the large display system and was surprised at how eager Haines’ dealers were to get it into their stores.