Whether you chalk it up to the economy, stricter environmental and logging laws, changing consumer preferences in both style and where a product comes from, or something else, one thing is clear: The use of non-traditional North American wood species to make flooring has risen dramatically over the last five years.
Generally referred to as domestic exotics, these are wood species that go beyond the traditional oak, maple and pine. While oak has been the king of wood flooring for decades, the latter two have, historically, been more widely used than any other domestically grown specie.
But things they are a changing, and as shown in FCNews’ annual Statistical issue (June 27/July 4), the percentage of species used have shifted from traditional exotic woods—species not native to North America, such as Tigerwood and Brazilian cherry—to domestic exotics such as hickory.
Last year, domestic species beyond the traditional three accounted for approximately 17%; in 2006 it was 9%. Also, within the realm of “other domestics,” hickory has grown so much that for the first time it is occupying its own slot rather than being lumped in under the generic heading. FCNews research shows wood floors produced with hickory made up 5% of the category’s sales in 2010. Meanwhile, exotics went from 27% in 2006 —10% was just for Brazilian cherry—to 20% in 2010, with Brazilian cherry falling to 6%.
According to manufacturers, there are numerous factors that can be pointed to, all of which starting happening around the same time, as to why this change started and continues to grow.
First there is the environment: from the U.S. revising its 100-year-old Lacey Act and other countries strengthening their own laws concerning illegal logging, to consumers becoming more conscious and knowledgeable about sustainability issues.
While the major North American mills say they did not have to make any changes to conform to the stricter regulations, some feel these laws have played into the rise of domestics at the hands of exotics. Dan Natkin, director of hardwood and laminate business for Mannington Mills, said, “While it’s difficult to pin the rise on the Lacey act, we do believe it has influenced the overall demand for domestic exotics.”
Harry Bogner, senior vice president of hardwood for Columbia Flooring, feels, “The drop-off of tropical exotic import products that were not Lacey compliant has fueled the growth of more domestic exotic products. We anticipate this trend to continue throughout 2011.”
He noted in Lacey’s mandate of all wood flooring providers play by the same set of environmentally responsible standards levels the playing field and makes the industry more competitive. “All these Lacey Act byproducts encourage the use of domestic wood, increasing the demand for domestic products. Because the integrity of the manufacturer is now more important than ever, Lacey Act requirements have actually worked in the favor of responsible brands such as Columbia. Retailers now rely even more heavily on parent companies and brands who over the years have earned their reputations as honorable and responsible corporate citizens. In addition to the peace of mind retailers derive from being associated with this type of entity, these brands help them by reducing the time and resources they spend, ensuring the products they carry fall within all necessary guidelines.”
Don Finkell, president of Shaw/Anderson hardwood, said the affects of the Lacey Act shedding light on the problems with tropical exotics coupled with “the emergence of more ‘Buy American Made’ has added to the proliferation of domestic exotics. Domestic exotics allow you to have both American made, sustainable products with something new and interesting in their styling.
He added, “The economy has [also] made people more aware of what their purchasing power means to the success of their neighbors and friends. To that extent I think that ‘Buy American Made’ has helped domestic exotics gain popularity.”
Brian Greenwell, vice president of sales and marketing for Mullican Flooring, noted while part of the increase in demand for domestic woods can be attributed to the declining availability of foreign exotics due to such things as enforcement of the Lacey Act, “the continued decline in the economy is also eroding demand for foreign exotics. People continue to want hardwood floors, but they are opting for less-expensive versions so they can have the look of exotic wood without having to invest quite as much money. This consumer trend is pushing domestic exotics to the forefront.”
Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing at Somerset Hardwood Flooring, said the influence of the down economy goes beyond just consumer preferences. “The economy makes it more difficult for a distributor or retailer to invest in containers and to stay efficient importing products. They also cannot afford a quality problem or misshipment in today’s climate.”
In fact, he added, “Some importers caused their own problems with quality issues and availability issues that made it less appealing to work with them or their products.
Chuck Wilson, wood product manager at Armstrong, said while each of the above are valid reasons for domestic’s rise, “The popularity of domestic exotics began in the fine furniture and cabinetry industries. As different woods became more popular in these home furnishings, the demand rose for flooring with similar looks.”
The growth in engineered construction also plays into this, he added. “Engineered construction is the most popular for several reasons: it allows for a more stable structure so it can be installed at any grade level of a home; it allows for a more efficient utilization of less prevalent species, and the tight graining of most domestic exotic woods makes them very popular in wider plank styles.”
Luc Robitaille, vice president of marketing at Boa-Franc/Mirage, agreed end user tastes have played a large role in this shift. “Lately, architects and designers have been using wider planks for most of their projects. Because of their stability, engineered products are often the preferred choice. [Plus] consumers are always looking for novelty, and when possible, they prefer to buy local products, thereby avoiding possible import problems.”
As noted earlier, when it comes to which domestic exotic mills and consumers favor the most hickory has become No. 1. Shiva Menon, product manager for Armstrong, said, hickory’s wide variation of heartwood and sapwood gives it “a unique and very rustic look and is perfect for surface treatments such as handscraping.”
Mullican’s Greenwell added besides its availability in a wide variety of color variations and stains, hickory is “extremely durable and resilient.”
Interestingly, it didn’t used to be this way as hickory’s hardness actually worked against it. “Historically,” explained Shaw’s Finkell, “manufacturers have not liked hickory because it is so much denser than oak and harder to cut and machine. It takes a commitment to successfully produce a quality hickory floor.”
While Hickory has broken from the pack as the most widely used domestic exotic, manufacturers cite upwards of a dozen types of North American woods now being used more than ever for flooring. “Walnut has been surging in the past few years due to its beautiful graining and how well it takes stain,” explained Mannington’s Natkin.
And, with today’s ability to alter the appearance and surface texture in a variety of ways the total number of domestic exotic SKUs available are well over a hundred. With so many options from which to choose, from walnuts and cherries to birch, elm and ash—even Canadian Breza—and, in some cases, rare species that have been reclaimed from places such as old barns and railroad ties or dredged from river beds, trying to help a consumer select the correct product for her needs can become a daunting task.
As such, Somerset’s Stringer noted, “Plant tours along with training are key components to our marketing program. We also have field sales staff that travel with the distributor reps. Plus, we have a dedicated technical director available to answer any questions and help in anyway possible.”
Beyond training, which also includes having education materials online, mills are also investing in merchandising that makes it easier for both the salesperson and consumer better understand the nature of domestic exotics.
For example, Columbia’s Bogner said the company’s merchandising elements are designed “to make it effortless for consumers and retail sales reps to quickly identify the domestic exotic products. Because the entire Columbia hardwood line is comprised exclusively of domestic species, we are keenly focused on highlighting our domestic exotic offerings.”
He added the mill breaks out the domestic exotic floors category into “a clearly marked separate section. Columbia displays also have prominent callouts and graphic labeling to allow both retail sales reps and consumers to quickly find domestic exotic product samples.”
In the end, Finkell said consumers are responding to what manufacturers and retailers are showing them. “Tropical forests are being depleted world wide. Domestic exotics allow you to have both American made, sustainable products with something new and interesting in their styling.”