Volume 26/number 28 June 10/17, 2013
by Steven Feldman
It took about 10 seconds for me to determine this would be a strong NeoCon, possibly the strongest in years. After walking into the Merchandise Mart at 8:45 Monday morning, I was met with the longest elevator lines I had witnessed in years. So long, in fact, I had to take the corporate elevators up to a non-NeoCon floor and walk down. (Hey, it beats walking up!)
Those lines remained long for much of the first two days of the show. It was no surprise the floors that house the permanent showrooms were packed to the rafters. Showrooms – both flooring and furniture – drew large crowds, and we are not talking only at 3 p.m. on Monday when everyone breaks out the booze. The hallways? Well, let’s just say I was repeatedly knocked around like a pinball.
After speaking with Byron Morton, the Merchandise Mart’s vice president of leasing, it all made sense. He told me pre-registration was up 20%, which usually translates into an actual attendance gain of 5% to 10%. Hotel room blocks were up 15% from 2012. I believe that. One person told me she needed a last-minute hotel room. The cost? $600. Another person told me 50 sportswriters covering Game I of the Blackhawks-Bruins Stanley Cup Finals had to stay in the suburbs.
So the people came, and the manufacturers were ready. Gone are the days of minimal introductions and small line extensions; this year they were loaded for bear. Exhibitors displayed bright, bold colors that had been absent. Yes, people have grown tired of the economic doldrums and are going bold–both in terms of design and outlook.
Aside from color, innovation was the buzzword. Whether it was textile composite flooring intros, new shapes, or technology, the A&D community had to leave impressed with what they saw. One thing’s for certain: Designers are tired of that mass-produced look. Wherever you looked, design depth and texture were the orders of the day.
What is driving this resurgence? Not surprisingly, the corporate or office segment, the largest piece of the commercial contract pie. As corporate profits have rebounded, there is more cash on S&P balance sheets than at any time in our history. The good news is companies are beginning to spend some of it.
It is not a perfect recovery, however. There is still a hint of uncertainty of what’s around the corner, so the projects tend to take a little longer for approval and then very quickly become fast-track projects. The other change from years past is more of a budget-minded aspect to some of the larger corporate projects.
As for product, the two hottest in the land are carpet tile and LVT. We’ve been singing the same song for years with modular taking share from broadloom. But LVT is quickly becoming the darling of the commercial flooring market, much as it has on the residential side. What’s more, it is finding favor across all contract segments. Three companies to keep an eye on here: Mannington through their purchase of Amtico; Tarkett/Tandus/Centiva, especially with the capability to produce in the U.S., and Shaw Commercial Hard Surface, which is moving faster than a runaway locomotive.
Ironically, this hard surface focus has driven other carpet mills to get in the game—sort of. This year you saw an influx of textile composite flooring, or “resilient hybrids” as some call it, which blends the benefits of hard and soft flooring.
In any case, when the dust settled, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who did not leave Chicago impressed.