June 26: Volume 32, Issue 1
By Reginald Tucker
A gradual build-up of stateside production and capacity of laminate flooring in 2016—combined with an increase in European-made product—was partially neutralized by the continued drop-off in imports from China that began in earnest in early 2015. The end result was a category that grew marginally in terms of value but slightly more with respect to volume.
FCNews research showed U.S. laminate flooring sales eked out $1.154 billion in sales last year, an uptick of just 1.5%—the lowest rate of increase of any hard surface category. Volume-wise, the category grew at a rate of 2% to 1.054 billion square feet—a reflection of the rise in shipments from Germany plus the increased domestic capacity that came online toward the latter part of the year. This represents a slight improvement over the 2014-15 period, which saw laminate volume decline to the tune of 3%. Sales-wise, laminate revenues grew a mere 0.17% over the same year-ago period.
All in all, things haven’t changed that much from, say, five years ago. In 2011, for example, U.S. laminate flooring sales were about $1.094 and 1.02 billion square feet. These figures represent increases of just 5.4% and 3.3% in terms of sales and volume, respectively, compared to 2016.
The larger story—even amidst the slight increases the category has seen since 2011 and year to date—is its decline in terms of the overall share of hard surface activity. In 2011, for example, laminate flooring represented 16.9% of all hard surface sales and a little over 14% in terms of volume; last year, the category’s percentage of hard surface sales slipped to 9.3% in value and 13.4% with respect to volume. Meanwhile, competing products such as resilient and ceramic tile grew their respective shares of the hard surface market over that time period.
Industry observers acknowledge the category’s mediocre performance in 2016.
“We estimate the market was somewhat flat between 2015 and 2016,” said Dan Natkin, vice president of hardwood and laminates, Mannington. “We show the total category was actually down about 2%, in both units and dollars.”
At the same time, Natkin acknowledges increased activity on the home front compared to the dramatic pullback from China that started in 2015 and continued into 2016. “The interesting thing is, with some of the new operations in the U.S.—and new capacity coming online—we think U.S. production actually picked up some share in 2016.”
David Holt, senior vice president, Mohawk Industries, can attest to the shift. Over the past year the company has been investing heavily in its laminate flooring operations in North Carolina with plans to start up an entirely new plant in the fourth quarter. “We are adding capacity when others are scaling back,” he said. “We believe in domestic manufacturing, and we’re investing in various assets to make sure we maintain a leadership role. This will increase our laminate capacity as we continue to grow.”
The changing import vs. domestic production dynamic is palpable—so much so that many industry observers are seeing an almost “about-face” turn with respect to the traditional laminate product mix. While FCNews research showed the share of domestic production of laminate rising from 60% to 64% in 2016 (compared to imports’ market share decline from 41% to 36%), some believe that ratio is even more lopsided.
“The ratio appears to be shifting in favor of domestically produced laminate due to the increase in capacity that came online in 2016,” said Drew Hash, vice president, hard surface category management, Shaw Floors. “We estimate closer to a 70/30 split between domestic and imported laminate, respectively, with the likelihood of closing in on a 75/25 split for 2017 as domestic capacity continues to increase.”
Travis Bass, executive vice president, Swiss Krono, has the domestic/import split closer to 60/40, respectively. But even he’s in agreement that German producers increased their share the past year. “Europe has shifted from 14% to 19% while China fell from 26% to 21%.”
To some industry experts, the dramatic drop in imports from China reflects a paradigm shift. “What we’re seeing is a preference for European and domestic supply,” said Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus, which has manufacturing operations in Germany. “As the domestic suppliers add capacity, the volume of imports will go down and the ratio of import vs. domestic will be reduced.”
Not everyone, however, believes the full impact of all this additional capacity is being felt at present. Some industry experts feel the biggest ripples are yet to come. “It really hasn’t had an impact yet because most of that new capacity has not yet come online,” said Roger Farabee, senior vice president, laminate and hardwood at Mohawk, which counts the Quick-Step brand among its assets. “We’re certainly seeing companies putting more capacity in the U.S., going after all the big box customers in particular. This will continue as that capacity comes online.”
In some cases, this new capacity simply displaces product that had previously been made in Europe by those same companies that are now producing domestically, Farabee stated. This phenomenon, he believes, will put pressure on the remaining producers both in the U.S. and in Europe to be able to compete not only on price but also in terms of product performance and visuals. “It will be interesting to watch because there’s a lot of new capacity coming online in a category that’s not really growing. However, we do expect some price pressure.”
Sales by channel
Just as the mix of laminate sources has changed in recent years, so has the sales activity as defined by distribution channel. FCNews research shows the specialty retail sector accounts for roughly one-third of category sales. What’s more, observers say, many of the laminate flooring products sold at this channel represent thicker, higher-margin items not typically sold at the average home center or mass merchant—a bright spot for the independent or aligned floor covering dealer.
Some observers feel specialty retail’s share was a bit higher than that. “We feel it might be as high as about 35%-36% given the growth in new home construction,” Mannington’s Natkin explained. Shaw’s Hash agreed, citing the company’s internal research that puts specialty retailers’ share of the business in more or less the same vicinity.
Despite this optimism, however, the fact remains home centers and mass merchants still account for the lion’s share of laminate sales. And, according to FCNews research, that share only grows with each passing year. In 2015, for example, home centers’ share of laminate flooring sales was about 45%. Last year that number grew closer to 50%. Throw in warehouse clubs, home décor outlets and the like, and that number balloons to more than 60%.
When it comes to actual profit margins, however, specialty retailers stand to emerge as the biggest beneficiaries. A cursory review of national home center laminate flooring pricing finds much of the products advertised target the $2.49-and-below range, while many specialty retailers and buying group dealers concentrate on the mid-to-upper end of the price spectrum (those products retailing in the $3.99-$4.99 realm). While many home centers can afford to draw consumers in to their stores using entry-level products as “loss leaders” with the hope that shoppers will browse and spend more money in other departments, specialty retailers—already operating on razor-thin margins—simply cannot win at that game.
“We have had great success with our mid-level laminates meeting a great variety of customer needs and wants,” said Char Smith, manager of Grand Junction, Colo.-based Gallagher’s Flooring, a top-selling Quick-Step dealer. “We try not to compete with box stores on any product. For the most part, they are selling to people who are only interested in a price point and have no idea or concern regarding quality of product. In flooring you get what you pay for—just like anything else.”
Given laminate flooring’s accessible price points, it should come as no surprise that the product remains a perennial favorite in residential replacement applications.
FCNews research shows the sector continued to generate the lion’s share of laminate sales—approximately 85%—last year. That’s up slightly from 82% the year prior but down from just over 88% in 2011.
“Laminate flooring has always been strongest in residential replacement, and this continued in 2016,” Welbourn said. “We feel there has been an increase in new construction with better design by all laminate producers.”
Meanwhile, FCNews research shows new construction accounted for roughly 12% of sales last year, up from about 9% in 2015. By comparison, new construction accounted for about 6.8% of laminate sales in 2011.
“We see a rapidly growing acceptance of laminate products in new home construction,” Mannington’s Natkin said. He believes this sector may have accounted for as much as 15% of laminate sales last year. “Laminates have begun to take the place of entry-level hardwood in this sector.”
Morgan Hafer, laminate product manager, Armstrong, also sees activity in the new home construction sector as more builders look to laminate as an entry-level product. On the commercial front, she said laminate also has a place “because it looks and feels like traditional hardwood, but has the durability attribute necessary for Main Street businesses.” FCNews research shows laminate flooring continued to cede commercial market share to competing categories, presumably LVT and, now, WPC. Statistics also show the contract commercial and Main Street markets combined accounted for just 2.4% of category sales in 2016—down from 4.2% in 2011.
“There will be variation by segment, but laminate in general will continue to lose share to categories like LVT and innovative new multi-layered flooring products,” Hafer added.
Indeed, the well-documented success of waterproof floors, LVT and rigid-core products has forced laminate manufacturers to step up their game. “There is no doubt these hot categories have stolen growth from the laminate category and others,” Inhaus’ Welbourn stated. “However, laminate is in a much better cost position than these plastic-based categories and is able to deliver some of the best value in the flooring business. This fact, along with continued innovation in the laminate category, has kept it competitive.”
As consumer preferences shift toward more hard surfaces being incorporated into the home, resilient flooring has seen an uptick in market share. The challenge for laminate flooring manufacturers, executives say, lies in improving upon water-resistant technology. This was evidenced by the various performance demonstrations conducted at Surfaces 2017. Proponents say it is only fitting given the innovations that originally inspired the creation of the laminate sector (i.e., improved performance in regards to moisture and general everyday use). Suppliers say enhancing these features certainly has created greater value for laminate flooring. “Additional focus on design continues in laminate with further enhanced textures and high-definition printing continuing to create the best designs the laminate category has ever been able to offer,” Welbourn added.
Many concede that laminate—much like other flooring products—has lost some market share to WPC. But from the consumer’s perspective, suppliers believe laminate is still a viable product that’s relatively inexpensive and offers several key attributes end users are looking for—realistic-looking patterns and design with proven performance. The fact that the U.S. laminate industry is still a one-billion-dollar-plus category is also something worth noting.
“We see continued growth for the laminate category at a pace between 2% and 5%,” Welbourn said. “We estimate the flooring category as a whole will have a higher rate of growth as the housing sector continues to recover.”
The optimism suppliers feel is supported by the investments they are making in manufacturing and the capacity they are building. For instance, Kronospan USA is demonstrating its commitment to the U.S. marketplace by investing and building manufacturing plants. In 2015 the company purchased Shippenville, Pa.-based Clarion Boards and Clarion Laminates, which produces medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and high-density fiberboard (HDF) panels as well as laminate flooring at the same site. Kronospan already operates a facility in Eastaboga, Ala., a site where the company manufactures MDF and HDF for manufacturers of laminate flooring, furniture, store fixtures, moldings, doors and other architectural applications.
A fully integrated supplier, Kronospan also produces specialty and decorative paper as well as other associated value-added products. More recently, Kronsopan USA completed the construction of a laminate facility in Oxford, Ala. Once fully operational, this facility will add even more capacity to fuel distributor and retailer demands.
Kronospan is not alone. The aforementioned investments Mohawk is making in its stateside laminate manufacturing operations is another prime example. “We believe in laminates as much as we believe in engineered wood,” Holt said. “With our hard surface offerings we service the builder trade as well as retail, so time to market is critical. And the only way you can say you service that builder market and retail market in a timely fashion is through domestic manufacturing.”
Not to be outdone, Swiss Krono continues to expand its production capabilities. Last summer the company broke ground on a $230 million high-density fiberboard mill and laminate flooring production expansion. This expansion—which will bring more than 100 new highly-skilled technical and management jobs to the Barnwell area—will allow Swiss Krono to produce 300,000 cubic-meters of HDF per year, which the company will use for laminate flooring manufacturing operations and sell to furniture, cabinet, fixture, door and other wood-based manufacturers. In total, the project will increase the company’s annual laminate flooring capacity by an additional 8 million square-meters.
This latest investment by Swiss Krono comes on top of a $30 million infusion the manufacturer’s parent company made several years ago to build a melamine resin paper treatment plant in Barnwell, S.C. “All of this [supports] our move to be vertically integrated,” Bass explained. “Heretofore, we had outsourced our HDF production as well as our paper treatment.”