by Melissa McGuire
Volume 26/Number 21; March 4/11, 2013
The retail landscape has changed dramatically for the specialty dealer who sells laminate flooring. The onslaught of home centers, price clubs and mass merchants, coupled with easier-to-install click systems, has resulted in the proliferation of products at low-margin price points.
“The task at hand for specialty retailers is to evaluate how they have done business in the past and make the necessary changes in their sales approach to maximize success in this new, changed market landscape,” said Shane Calloway, vice president of sales and independent distribution for Unilin Flooring, manufacturer of the Quick•Step brand.
Retailers have seen the writing on the laminate wall and have been forced to compete with these new players by changing their product and selling styles with the help of their manufacturing partners.
Milton Goodwin, vice president of hardwood and laminate for Armstrong, said premium laminate is crucial for the specialty retailer, and the product must begin with quality. He added specialty retailers often offer the most realistic-looking laminate on the market, which may often be confused with their genuine wood counterparts. Goodwin believes inexpensive laminates cannot compete with higher-end products in terms of visual clarity, realism or quality.
“Some manufacturers are moving away from high-quality, premium products,” he said. “But our emphasis has been on premium laminate because the product has to both excite and inspire the consumer while addressing the rational concerns around quality and value. That’s what a consumer wants. Armstrong has always understood this.”
Technology has been a driving force behind Armstrong’s premium product lineups. “Our groundbreaking designs are brought to life through our MasterWorks technology and are often mistaken for the real thing,” Goodwin explained. “We have the capability to add strikingly realistic texture and embossing in perfect alignment with the clearest, most vibrant images.” And he believes this is what sets Armstrong apart.
Because laminates have become more realistic than earlier versions, Goodwin said many retailers will continue to market laminate as a hardwood alternative. He believes retailers should be selling more expensive laminate as a trade-up from other surfaces like vinyl or carpet.
When it comes to selling, Goodwin said retailers should “clearly call out the key attributes for the customers who drive value, showing them how realistic looks differ across price points.” He also stressed the importance of utilizing quality merchandising to navigate the full range of options as well as demonstrating sensitivity to customer preference.
Equally important is taking advantage of the power of brands to distinguish quality products to support the trade-up story. “Great brands are tremendous assets to retailers,” Goodwin said. “They help bring people into the store and provide a sense of trust and confidence. The most important thing is to get the customer in the door and make the whole shopping process as enjoyable as possible.”
Another leader in laminate, Mannington differentiates itself with realism and new product development. “The vast majority of what is sold by the lower-priced merchants are dated, butcher-block-like visuals,” said Dan Natkin, Mannington’s director of wood and laminate. “Our products are wholly different. We continue to push the envelope with our design capability.”
Natkin said retailers should sell products that are almost indiscernible from real wood over a product that “looks and sounds cheap.” He also noted retailers should stock Made in the USA products that are certified for quality and performance as well as sustainability. “The vast majority of laminate is still professionally installed,” he said. “We see a division between the channels in the quality and style of product offered.”
Greg Loeffler, residential buyer and manager of Pierce Flooring with multiple stores in Montana, said there are many selling points he discusses with consumers who are looking to purchase laminate. “We always emphasize style, color and texture differences between lower-end laminate and the higher qualities we generally sell,” he said. “The processes of creating this higher-end look obviously has a higher cost.”
Loeffler explained the company tries not to push the technical jargon of the products, though most consumers seem to grasp the concept of enhancements such as registered embossing. “This gives higher-end laminate the look and feel of real wood customers desire. We obviously build value in the products with our service, reputation and the warranties we can offer, also.”
For Nick Freadreacea, president of The Flooring Gallery in Louisville, Ky., a major differentiator over the big box stores is stocking high-end laminates, 12mm in particular, and installing it in his showroom so the customer gets a full visual. He explained that a higher-end laminate excels on a visual, finishing and clarity level.
Freadreacea also stressed the importance of providing a high-end underlayment. “We use cork because of the premium sound quality and sustainable attributes.”
Lastly, service is a significant factor for The Flooring Gallery in that “even if a customer is buying a DIY from us, we will walk her through the entire process and always be there if there is a problem once she gets home.”
Unilin’s Calloway believes there is a formula in regard to providing selling tips to the retailer. “The wise retailer should excel at providing personalized service before, during and after the sale. By providing customer service in the areas of style and design assistance, a specialty retailer can ensure the consumer takes home a product that accurately meets her needs.”
In addition to strong customer service, Calloway said there should be a focus on offering the greatest selection of product available. He noted specialty retailers generally offer a higher level of style, variety of design and more selection. He said other sales channels and retailers should capitalize on variety. “The consumer will definitely have a greater number of products and samples to see, touch and feel when she shops our Quick•Step displays in specialty retail stores.”
Calloway also mentioned a retailer should use his relationships with established and trusted installers as a selling point with non-DIYers. “A portion of the market would never even consider a DIY project,” he said. “These consumers trust and rely upon specialty retailers who they perceive as experts in the total flooring purchase and to handle the critical component of successful installation.”
Additionally, he maintains retailers shouldn’t get caught up in selling on price or profits will suffer. Explaining that making money comes from the consistent selling of the features and benefits found in a solid product line, Calloway said a strong brand presents the retailer with a product line that can stand on its own. “Manufacturers that back these in-demand designs with quality, warranties and service year after year are the only partners for a retailer who wants to make money.”
The successful retailer currently captures sales by offering products that successfully combine style and value, he said. “Products that are currently top sellers in the laminate industry are those offering a strong value proposition.” According to Calloway, a good value doesn’t mean cheap, it means offering consumers a quality product at an attractive price.
Finally, he believes a retailer should partner with brands that offer strong merchandising systems. Noting the savvy brand takes a superior product line and “wraps it in a comprehensive merchandising program,” he said retailers need to understand the importance of strong merchandising systems and then partner with brands whose value proposition includes this element.