Carpet: Combatting the hard surface surge with a ‘soft’ touch

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July 4/11, 2016; Volume 30, Number 27

By Ken Ryan

There may be no stopping the well-documented emergence of hard surfaces as the dominant flooring surface, but some recent reports suggest carpet remains a very viable category, at least with one key demographic.

In a recent report, Mintel Global Research found the 25-34 age group (millennials) was the most active purchasers of flooring; in 2015 65% of millennials who were in the market bought a hard surface product and 51% bought carpet (many bought both). According to Mintel, millennials represented the highest percentage of carpet purchases of any group. Since carpet remains the largest single category in flooring, that research is a confidence booster for mill executives who continue to step up their R&D efforts.

“Even though hard surface has grown in recent popularity, softness and comfort underfoot is still desired by the consumer,” said Brad Christenson, director of category and product management at Shaw Floors.

Today’s carpets offer many benefits: softness, ease of maintenance and even protection from soil, stains and pet accidents. Executives say it is important for manufacturers to commit to continued soft surface innovation including more visually interesting patterns, designs and colors. “Since consumers are mixing surfaces in their homes, they are more willing than ever to take unconventional risks with carpet,” Christenson said.

The top two manufacturers, Mohawk and Shaw, are well positioned to capture sales no matter which direction product trends go. As Christenson pointed out, “It’s rare these days for just one floor covering type to monopolize the entire home. It’s important for manufacturers to offer products that integrate well with one another, and it’s equally important for retailers to show how colors and textures blend and work well together during the consumer’s shopping process.”

Seth Arnold, residential brand director for Mohawk Industries, believes while carpet spaces in the home are taking up less square footage than in the past, carpet still offers the homeowner a great value. “We’re focused on innovation to create a value product that people will trade up to.”

Arnold added that style and design are emotional triggers that compel consumers to trade up. Similar to hard surface desires, he said consumers desire carpet that is long lasting and easy to maintain. As such, technology advances in cleanability and durability have become two of the most sellable features. “No matter what the fiber type or carpet, cleanability and durability will be at the forefront,” Arnold explained. “We provide a very clear marketing platform for our dealers.”

Mohawk first launched SmartStrand and then added nanotechnology to the line; today dealers can tell a story about a great looking carpet that is also clean and durable. In the case of EverStrand with the Continuum process, Mohawk goes one step further by delivering a cleaner process that is also leading to a cleaner planet.

Shaw Floors continues to drive carpet innovation, most recently with breakthrough products like its LifeGuard waterproof backing system. Carpets featuring LifeGuard backing are engineered to clean easier and better thanks to R2X technology on the carpet’s surface, coupled with a 100% waterproof backing. “For the first time, consumers can have the peace of mind that liquid spills and accidents will not seep into the carpet cushion and ultimately the subfloor causing unpleasant and reoccurring odors and wicking,” Christenson said. “The innovation has generated excitement in the category. It gives consumers a real reason to upgrade and it also creates an opportunity for retailers to drive more sales.”

Engineered Floors, with its residential DreamWeaver brand, has been driving more sales with its proprietary PureColor soft nylon and soft polyester carpets. For now, Engineered Floors is strictly a soft surface manufacturer. As such, its challenge is to make today’s carpet appealing in a way that cannot be duplicated by any hard surface. “The goal is to make a floor that is warm, soft and inviting to live on while at the same time make it beautiful and incredibly durable and easy to maintain,” said Mike Sanderson, vice president of product marketing.

According to Sanderson, carpet customers are responding extremely well to Engineered Floors’ new Variable Color Technology, which is branded as VariColor. “By taking various color yarn strands, we’re able to create a depth of color that is unachievable in traditional tweeds or accents,” he said. “Combine that with our soft PureColor nylon or polyester carpets and dealers have a true step up in carpet design, comfort and performance.”

Premium soft

While some manufacturers have adopted a “soft enough” approach in marketing their new products, others continue to focus on the premium soft segment, which offers customers what Arnold termed “immediately perceivable extraordinary differences.” A product like Mohawk’s Silk, for example, provides durability and a level of softness that Arnold said is unlike anything on the market. “While other manufacturers are probably dialing back on softness for performance reasons, we don’t see that; Mohawk is seeing our retailers continue to succeed with products like Silk—extraordinary softness that wins the heart and pocketbook of consumers. We will continue to push and innovate softness as a key feature because premium soft is a sellable feature.”

Within a competitive environment for carpet market share, smaller mills are adding value with uniqueness. Lexmark Carpet Mills, which earned industry praise for Tailored by Lexmark in 2015, believes its new Adorn line can become this year’s star on the strength of its softer yarn and depth of patterns. While Tailored put Lexmark on the map for the affordable fashion look, Rodney Mauter, executive vice president, residential division, is seeing the same kind of enthusiasm for Adorn, which is just now hitting retail. In terms of new fiber initiatives, Mauter said, “Our focus will remain with LCL (loop cut loop) and MLCL (multilevel LCL) and solution-dyed offerings. We have an ever-expanding color offering.”

Some time ago Marquis Industries made a commitment to add higher quality, better-looking products to its lineup. The move paid off with the launch of three news series of 45 to 65 ounce products that were well constructed and soft to the touch.

“Soft hands, which are a must with consumers, and a high twist gave our products a great visual and a high-performance product,” said Mike Lindberg, executive vice president of sales. He noted that consumers are willing to spend extra if they are convinced the added benefits of buying luxurious carpet is worth it in the long run.

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