By Reginald Tucker From its inception in Europe in the early 1990s to its highly touted debut in the North American market later that same decade, laminate flooring provided a durable, tough, hard surface flooring option for consumers looking for alternatives to more costly options such as hardwood, tile and stone. Fast forward to 2021 and the laminate flooring category finds itself in a position that requires fortitude and strength of a different sort, as it seeks to reassert itself among other durable hard surface products such as LVT, SPC and rigid core hybrids.
The key to recouping lost market share, suppliers say, lies in the application of new technologies designed to: increase the product’s resistance to moisture; expand its overall thickness to resemble that of real wood; and render more realistic visuals that reflect the demands of today’s consumers.
“Moisture-resistant and waterproof laminates will continue to lead the charge in this category,” said Dan Natkin, vice president of hardwood and laminates, Mannington. “They combine the best attributes of laminate (long-term wear performance) with the moisture resistance of vinyl.”
For Mannington, it’s not just talk. The company has invested significantly in its laminate manufacturing operations to further enhance the capabilities of its product offerings. The end result was more realistic, non-repetitive in a single box, in addition to enhancements to its signature SpillShield technology. The new-and-improved SpillShield Plus protection, according to Natkin, puts laminate on a more even playing field with its hard surface resilient counterparts that tout waterproof capabilities.
“We’ve enhanced the product by treating the bevels and the locking joints along with some other proprietary treatments,” he explained. “We’ve worked on the technology to make it waterproof from the top down from everyday household use such as spills and accidents—not the catastrophic water line breaks that flood the floor.”
Industry observers agree the performance attributes of LVT and its sub-categories continue to apply pressure on all categories, especially laminate. But that could be a blessing in disguise. “The result is everyone is upping their game with design and innovation,” said Derek Like Natkin, Welbourn said he sees opportunities for laminate to recoup share via new product/technology innovations. “Water-resistant products and enhanced visuals with digital printing—combined with traditional laminate product Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus. “The industry will be better for it in the long run.”
Like Natkin, Welbourn said he sees opportunities for laminate to recoup share via new product/technology innovations. “Water-resistant products and enhanced visuals with digital printing—combined with traditional laminate product enhancements such as embossed in register designs and beveled edges—will fuel growth of the laminate segment,” Welbourn stated. “It’s all about creating greater value for consumers with products that offer durability, compelling looks and ease of use.”
That’s part of the winning formula that Mohawk has provided to feed the growing demand for its expanding line of RevWood, RevWood Plus and RevWood Select products. “We had quite a few expansions of the RevWood Plus and Select category over the past couple of years, and we continued that this year as well,” said Adam Ward, senior product director, wood and laminate. “We’ll continue to support the category with new launches to stay in front of our customers. It’s all about keeping the momentum going.”
Mohawk said it intends to accomplish that objective through the development of laminate products that reflect similar trends seen in the hardwood flooring category—wider/longer. “A good example of that is we have a line of products in both Mohawk and in our Quick-Step lines that measure 9 ½ inches wide x 7 feet long,” Ward explained. “When you look at a comparable product in LVT or a hardwood product, these are products that are two to three times the price of laminate.”
Another company bent on raising the bar in the laminate flooring category is Republic Floor. While many retailers and distributors equate Republic with its vast array of popular SPC and hardwood flooring offerings, the company is quick to remind the industry that it also intends to vigorously compete in the laminate arena—a segment that accounts for 30% of its sales. But instead of focusing on me-too products all clamoring for the same retail shelf space, Republic Floor said it is concentrating on building products that present upgrade opportunities for retailers.
“We definitely see laminates coming back,” said Rotem Eylor, CEO of Republic Floor, which experienced an 8% increase in its laminate sales last year—a multiple of what the overall laminate category achieved in 2020. “But not the cheaper, 8mm or 10mm product—rather, the thicker 12mm format. That’s where we are going to focus. We’re putting our money where our mouth is. We just rolled out a new line of laminates at a time when some companies aren’t introducing any laminates anymore.”
CFL Flooring, maker of the popular Atroguard waterproof laminate line, is also counting on technology to get retailers excited about laminate flooring again. “Laminate flooring provides RSAs with both a performance and design story,” said Barron Frith, president of the company’s North American operations. “Water-resistant laminate’s main advantages from a performance standpoint are still scratch and stain resistance.”
Even companies that produce laminate flooring on a private-label-only basis are making significant investments in the category. Case in point is Barnwell, S.C.-based Swiss Krono USA, the American arm of the global Kronospan manufacturing giant. In 2020, Swiss Krono brought its medium-density fiberboard plant online, capping off capital investments the company made in recent years to shore up its domestic capacity. According to Travis Bass, executive vice president, it’s welcome news for its customers. “The value of our manufacturing prowess has been a good fit with our primary customer base,” he said. “With business changing so abruptly back in March of 2020, our flexibility has turned out to be a significant advantage for us.”
Another factor playing to laminate suppliers’ advantage is a broader move toward more environmentally friendly products. That, coupled with advances in digital printing technology, makes for a compelling proposition. “The continued improvement of laminate looks and textures—along with exploiting laminate’s environmental/sustainability story with the emerging millennial market—makes it a best choice for floor covering,” Bass stated.
For some manufacturers, laminate has the upper hand due to its track record in the market. “Many consumers are already familiar with what laminate flooring is, so they are aware of the benefits it offers compared to other flooring products,” said Jerry Guo, marketing executive with Lions Floor, which sources out of Asia but warehouses product in the U.S. “There is a customer base that is still very loyal to laminates because it has been tested in the market. Plus, today’s products are thicker and more scratch resistant than the original versions.”
Elevating its status
Laminate suppliers say the application of innovative technologies will only continue to drive the category forward, despite the market share WPC and SPC-type products have seized in recent years. In fact, some argue that laminate holds the advantage over competing products in some respects. “Thicker, water-resistant products give laminate a clear, total advantage over vinyl products,” Swiss Krono’s Bass said.
It’s not just manufacturers who say laminate has elevated its status in recent years. Distributors like Owings Mills, Md.-based Elias Wilf also attested to the tremendous strides that higher-quality laminates have made. “Laminate is a great example of how the industry has evolved,” said Jeff Striegel, president. “We’ve watched as the category shifted from a thinner, 7mm or 8mm product to a much more meaningful 12mm or half- inch format. When you look at laminate vs. LVP or SPC, laminate is twice as thick—people lose sight of that. The laminate category has also adapted in other aspects, such as waterproof protection.”
Laminate has other benefits over competing categories, proponents say. For example, Striegel said laminate is not limited to certain areas of the home like some SPC products. “Just about every LVT comes with a warning: ‘Don’t install in direct sunlight.’ The products have known issues with discoloration and thermal expansion. Meanwhile, with laminate, which has some shortcomings, you don’t have to worry about direct sunlight. In addition, laminate offers what I feel is probably the most superior scratch resistance of all the products out there, certainly over LVT.”
But perhaps the biggest issue standing in the way of laminates’ resurgence—despite all the advancements the category has witnessed recently—is unfounded reservations from RSAs, according to Striegel. Understandably, he noted, many retail salespeople go for the low-hanging fruit: the craze surrounding WPC flooring, SPC flooring, and everything waterproof. This, he said, has blinded them to a great opportunity to promote and sell a proven commodity. “I love this business; I love retailers. But when they get onto something and they develop a love affair with a category or a product, the impact is phenomenal,” he said. “And let’s face it, the average retail salesperson today has developed a love affair with LVT.
But in the last six months in particular, we’ve witnessed dealers starting to re-embrace laminate. They like the heft of the thicker, 12mm products, and the styling we’re seeing in laminate today is just incredible.”
Outlook for 2021
Despite the challenges the laminate segment continues to face amid stiff competition from other hard surface categories, suppliers are still bullish on the segment’s prospects this year. “It will be interesting to see how much laminate grows in the COVID-19 environment,” Swiss Krono’s Bass said. “It has definitely been a product of choice for the DIY customer, and the positive environmental story has been a hit with the emerging millennial consumer. That said, I expect business to gradually return to normal during the course of 2021 with total annual growth in the 3%-4% range. Internally, we expect our laminate sales will grow 5%–10%.”
Mannington’s Natkin is in agreement. “Laminate has seen a resurgence in 2020, and we believe this will continue throughout 2021,” he said, forecasting overall growth in the 3%-5% range.”
While some industry observers say they are not expecting a seismic shift in the market share ratio between laminate and competing categories, they do say the segment will continue to garner attention. “We forecast mid to high single-digit growth with RevWood, thereby exceeding the market for laminate,” Mohawk’s Ward said.
Some project the category will fare even better than that. “We continue to see growth rates in the double digits as we are extremely focused on laminate and the advantages it brings to our customers,” Inhaus’ Welbourn stated. “We love laminate. We continue to invest and innovate by creating product attributes that truly add value for our customers.”