Narrow to wide, smooth to texture, glossy to matte, make up landscape

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In today’s fast-paced world it seems like spotting a trend is a difficult task. Most things we think may stick and create a certain movement or direction end up dissipating rather quickly. In other words, it was more a fad than a trend.

But, whether it is a trend, a fad or some quirk that makes a particular item popular, products that are in vogue are what help create sales and move inventory. And with many retailers still struggling to bring in extra business, making sure your store has the latest products is one thing. Knowing why they are trendy, as well as understanding consumer shopping habits, are key to putting your company in the forefront.

Floor Covering News surveyed some of the laminate category’s top mills to get their take on the fashion pulse on which they are basing their latest designs and constructions.

“Laminate trends are at the point where they’re only limited by what technology can achieve,” said Dan Natkin, director of Mannington Mills’ hardwood and laminate business. “In recent years we’ve launched longer, wider planks, and this year we’re introducing products using a unique embossed-in-register technology that gives them incredible realistic appeal. Our new Restoration Collection is so realistic most consumers will not be able to tell the difference between it and real wood.”

When it comes to trying to define the next big thing, Yon Hinkle, Armstrong’s product manager for resilient tile and laminate, said trends tend to be regional. “You’re not going to get the same answer in the Southwest as you will in the mid-Atlantic. For example, in the Southwest all they want to talk about may be rustics; not so much in the Northwest.”

However, as a general rule, consumers are looking for good selection and a fair number of options in widths and lengths, he said. “When it come to the wood side of laminate styles, we take our lead from the most popular hardwood trends—and it helps being the largest hardwood manufacturer. There is a new emphasis on the handscraped look—one of the best-selling visuals in the hardwood category. We also see a focus on products that look most like real wood—longer and wider, such as our 5-inch-wide wood designs.”

Travis Bass, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Kronotex, parent company of Formica, said, “The styles that seem to be in vogue are narrow—but not too narrow—widths, along with darker colors, more subtle scrapes and varied gloss textures.”

As if to bridge the gap, Eric Erickson, Shaw’s laminate category manager, said the company is continuing to see its bevel edge products growing with 5-inch still the most accepted width “but we are having great success with our new 3-inch for- mat. This really brings a natural and realistic look to the flooring.”

Shaw is also still seeing strong sales with gloss products in varying levels of sheen along with strong demand in handscraped visuals.

The majority of laminate products continue to mimic wood species but there is still a decent amount that replicate tile and stone. For example, “Armstrong Stones & Ceramics collection in an 8.3mm construction which offers a lime- stone as well as a gorgeous slate inspired by natural Vermont slate, provides a beautiful option to wood visuals,” Hinkle said.

David Hartman, vice president of sales for Pergo, said the category continues to expand its visuals. “There are a variety of new colors and textures emerging in the laminate category. Rich and refined oaks are still popular among both laminate retailers and consumers. The newest Pergo Elegant Expressions decors—Reclaimed, Renaissance and Fleming Oak—are classic looks featuring the latest in multi-layer embossed-in-register texturing and are inspired by the trend toward refined rustic flooring.”

Colorful character

In terms of color, most are seeing reddish brown hues trending out, while deeper and darker browns are gaining popularity. “Our Coastal Living white-washed walnut product has done well in different parts of the country because it offers a visual that is different than the typical wood look,” Hinkle said.

For Kronotex, “Classic walnuts and cherries, rustic oaks and exotic looks are all very popular,” Bass said.

When it comes to price points, executives said even though laminate prices remain under a great deal of pressure with consumers not fully opening their wallets just yet, they do see a desire from end users for a better product. “We are seeing a gentle migration away from emphasis on opening price point items to more value-added attributes as consumer confidence builds and economic fears continue to ease,” Bass explained.

Shaw’s Erickson agreed. “Price points continue to be under pressure from overseas factories continuing to dump into the U.S. markets. But hopefully we will start to see that change with some of the changes we are seeing with the economy, fuel and dollar value.”

While consumers remain cautious with their discretionary spending, Roger Farabee, senior vice president of marketing for Mohawk Industries’ Unilin division, noted end users “almost universally are scrutinizing their flooring purchases through a new value lens. The flooring options most attractive to a large portion of a retailer’s customers are those products that offer a strong value proposition.”

Mannington’s Natkin agreed, noting that laminate continues to be a “great” value proposition for the consumer from both a price and performance standpoint.

As such, Farabee pointed out that a good value proposition doesn’t mean cheap. It means offering consumers a quality product at an attractive price. “A superior level of realism is an important key to a retailer’s success with laminate, and this level of increased authenticity further heightens the value proposition.”

Bird’s eye view

With many of its members selling product in the U.S., Karin Dullweber, spokesperson for the European Producers of Laminate Flooring (EPLF), summed up the category as a whole. “The new laminate floors that will be the sensation of 2011 are characterized by visual depth and distinctive structures. The innovative variety…aims at one thing: lending laminate flooring even more visual expression.”

This means, on the wood looks, “Whether the look is ultra-matte or high-gloss; wide, long planks; long, narrow planks, or the classical country…it lets one forget it differs from real wood.”

Regarding tile and stone visuals, Dullweber said, “Just like the wood reproductions, they convince with unique surface textures, which give the impression of visual depth and natural authenticity.”

The bottom line, Armstrong’s Hinkle said, is customers want beauty, performance and easy installation. “And like the majority of mills, we’re focused on providing the best, most realistic-looking laminate— and one that is easy for the retailer to sell offering unique selling propositions—from high-end luxury styling to durable performance characteristics.”

In a nutshell, Dullweber concluded, “Laminate flooring simply is the all-arounder among floor coverings.”

-Matthew Spieler

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