Hardwood: Flooring Trends: Hardwood innovation is helping producers return the category to the spotlight – Oct 2019

By Darius Helm

Hardwood remains consumers’ aspirational flooring choice; however, the nouveau chic LVT wave has distracted consumers with its wood-look aesthetics, durability and lower price story. In an effort to set the record straight on wood products, hardwood producers, along with the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), are working passionately to tell hardwood’s story, find ways to innovate through technology, elevate the category through the expression of trends, and navigate the tariff situation-all while braving the resilient storm.

Over the last four years, resilient flooring has placed a great deal of pressure on all flooring categories with increased demand for SPC and WPC in wood-look aesthetics. And only 18 months ago, the resilient flooring category surpassed hardwood to become the largest hard surface category. In order to compete, the hardwood category has had to evolve, much to the chagrin of category purists.

In January of this year, the NWFA launched its Real Wood. Real Life campaign, which defines a wood floor as “any flooring product that contains real wood as the top-most, wearable surface of the floor” and goes on to break wood flooring into three categories: solid wood flooring, engineered wood flooring and composite engineered wood flooring. This final category “contains real wood on the wearable surface only. The backing and core material may be made up of any type of composite material.”

Some in the hardwood industry are suspicious and don’t see this last category as belonging in the wood definition but rather as a product that belongs in the SPC/WPC category and feel traditional consumers will agree, while progressives feel that including these products will re-energize the category. But even some of those who are purists at heart recognize that the move to composite wood flooring may well be the next big trend.

Pat Oakley, national sales manager for Mullican Flooring, questions the thin wood veneer on top of SPC construction, “Does it look like the wood we’re used to buying? It more closely resembles a resilient floor with a wood top on it. I don’t know if you can compare it to wood flooring at this point because it’s 99% plastic and 1% wood. Yeah, it has a wood veneer on top of it, but, to the consumer, it’s just a different version of a resilient floor and not a new version of a wood floor.”

FAD, TREND OR PRINCIPLE
AHF’s design manager Sara Babinski separates color updates, texture changes, category innovations, etc. into three categories: fad, trend and principle. It’s important to understand the difference between the three to assist in predicting where each flooring element might be headed.

Babinski explains that fads may be cultural, generational or social. “They are brief and short-lived,” she says. “I tend to look at tropical exotics as a fad; although it lasted many years, it was not a lasting legacy in hardwood flooring.” Another example are extreme color introductions; they have the potential to be a fad.

Trends, however, are capable of elevating a category. Trends are long running compared to a fad’s brief stay. Babinski says trends may possess elements of a fad but typically turn into a principle-also known as a classic.

A principle or classic is a trend that is here to stay. A strong example of a trend-turned-principle is that of the oak category. Until new methods were introduced like wire brushing and European white-oak cuts, the oak visual was fading in popularity, and now it’s the hottest look in the market.

HARDWOOD INNOVATION
Is composite wood flooring destined to be a standard like solid and engineered?

Johnson Hardwood has been producing a wood veneer on top of a SPC rigid core for years. American OEM recently launched its Raintree waterproof wood line. At the end of September 2019, Shaw launched composite wood flooring products under its Floorté and Coretec brands, though it’s worth noting that its Epic product, a real wood veneer atop a high-density fiberboard core, is technically a composite engineered wood and has been on the market since 2006. The Floorté wood line is built on a SPC core, while Coretec is built on a magnesium oxide core, and both are waterproof. Kährs does not produce a composite wood product yet, but it has recently expanded its portfolio to include resilient and LVT, and according to Morten Rossell, group design manager with Kährs, the firm is considering composite wood as a possibility for the future.

AHF just launched its Bruce Hydropel waterproof wood flooring that is made of wood throughout the entire product and uses no polymers. Hydropel is a composite engineered hardwood product that uses proprietary core technology made of what AHF has termed “ultra-high-density fiberboard” that can resist water for up to 36 hours. It is treated with a performance coating that protects against scratches, indentations and staining. The product is also DIY-friendly.

According to Dan Natkin, Mannington’s vice president of hardwood and laminate, Mannington has been testing a hardwood veneer on top of a non-wood base for three years. The early versions did not perform well. However, he feels the company is now reaching viability with products using this construction.

AHF's Sara Babinski says, of the progression toward composite wood flooring, “As the market changes and consumers require new attributes related to performance and cost, real wood veneers on alternative substrates will become commonplace.”

According to Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM, the Raintree line uses a 1.2mm veneer, which he deems “the sweet spot” for veneer thickness. He stresses that falling below that thickness reduces the texture level and makes the veneer look artificial. He points out that 0.6mm veneers exist, but they look flat, much like vinyl or laminate. By comparison, American OEM’s standard rotary peeled engineered product is 1.5mm thick, and the sliced products are 2.5mm.

“We looked at different thicknesses, but the problem is that the SPC core does not respond to changes in humidity or moisture like wood does,” says Finkell. “But it does respond to temperature changes, and wood does not change much [with temperature changes]. You are then bonding two different materials together that react differently to those elements. The thicker the veneer, the more it tends to overpower the core. The thinner the veneer, the less problems you have. From an engineering standpoint, you want the veneer to be as thin as possible without comprising the aesthetics. Too thin, and it looks like plastic. Too thick, and it is no longer flat.”

Many questions continue to float around regarding hardwood’s ability to be waterproof and whether a consumer really needs a 100% waterproof (versus water-resistant) floor.

When speaking of a thin wood veneer on SPC, Oakley says, “I firmly believe the core is waterproof, and I think you could use a thin-enough veneer and load it up with enough finish to make it pass some sort of soap test.” However, he warns that there is no set standard in the floorcovering industry defining waterproof. Until one is established, he says, “People are going to exaggerate the waterproof benefit to outsell the competition product. Honestly, it’s misleading to the consumer to some degree. Unfortunately, it’s too late. That’s the path that a lot of manufacturers in the waterproof arena have taken and stretching that truth is a risky choice.”

Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing for Somerset, says of developments in waterproof products, “I think it’s a short-term trend that we can do nothing about.”

Rossell sees the benefit in marrying wood with a non-wood base. “It is definitely a highly durable product, and a better product when you feel it and walk on it,” he says. “It sounds like a total solid wood floor and is water resistant.”

SOLID WOOD
Parts of the country-most notably, the Northeast-remain devoted to solid hardwood. And while the low end of hardwood continues to be overpowered by resilient, the luxury market, regardless of region, is still a bastion for solid hardwood. Engineered hardwood is strongest in the South, where slab construction is most prevalent. In 2018, engineered wood sales represented 62% of the total market compared to 60% in 2017, according to Santo Torcivia with Market Insights.

Brian Carson, AHF’s CEO, reports that the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and Ohio are considered strongholds for solid hardwood flooring sales. He points out that the Mid-Atlantic and South are rotary engineered wood markets, and the West Coast is more sawn/sliced face engineered wood. On the West Coast, he says, the high-end wood looks are growing.

Chris Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing for Mirage, says that current growth in the hardwood market is in engineered. “All of Mirage’s products are viable for each of those markets; independent retailers and contractors are the strongest channels for Mirage products,” he says.

Natkin says, “Hardwood is still the flooring type that consumers aspire to, so there is huge opportunity in the residential replacement cycle.” He also reports that the builder market is another opportunity for hardwood; however, hardwood’s demand shifts with new construction’s ebb and flow; when new construction is up so, too, is hardwood’s demand.

“I think wood is always going to have its place,” says Stringer. “I think the best, efficient suppliers, especially in solid, are going to be those who don’t get carried away, stay the course, reduce their cost, have product for those who will still buy it, have a good clean display and have a quality product, and they’ll hold on to their share of the market until we enter a growth period again.”

EVOLVING TRENDS
When it comes to flooring trends and design, the West Coast has always been the domestic trend setter, relaying trends from Europe and other parts of the world to the rest of the country. White oak is the species that is currently most popular. Texture is heading toward subtle wire-brushed and hand-scraped natural looks. Peeled veneers are going the way of the dodo, being replaced by the more popular sawn-face/sliced-face veneers. Lighter colors, wider widths and longer lengths are trending.

“Design is always about timing,” says Rossell. Hardwood trends are cyclical, but when a trend comes back around, it is the nuanced changes that make it slightly different and up to date. Take white oak for instance. White oak’s demand was weak with consumers, and the use of different finish techniques turned that around. It is one of the more durable species, providing it with a good performance story. The tannins in white oak react nicely to stain, and it offers a range of warm to slightly green colors.

When it comes to color and texture, Kährs, based in Sweden, has traditionally produced Scandinavian looks that are characterized by white, light texture, low gloss, and very little, if any, character like knots and cathedral graining to create natural, clean looks. Rossell indicates that these looks have not gone away but are instead evolving toward darker looks in Europe. Conversely, he points out that the U.S. is going the opposite direction-toward natural, light, clean looks that fall under traditional Scandinavian aesthetics. He believes that some of this is due to the unlimited online access consumers have to new trends.

CATEGORY UPDATE
As wood vendors prep to brave the LVT/resilient storm, companies that sell both wood and resilient products must walk a thin line between supporting one category and denouncing the other. Natkin says, “I believe in balance-the right product for everyone. [The industry] has gotten a little unbalanced,” referring to the influx of LVT in the market. Additionally, hardwood producers are keeping a close eye on the LVT category and the tariffs, trying to predict the next right move.

As the current wave of LVT nears replacement age, will consumers return to LVT or switch it up? The wood producers interviewed for this report feel that the remodel/residential replacement market offers the most opportunity for share gain for hardwood.

Entry-level hardwood is being impacted the most by LVT/resilient due to the latter’s ability to offer a “cheaper price and better design,” says Adam Ward, senior product director, hardwood and laminate for Mohawk. Several producers, including Ward, feel that the mid to upper end of hardwood has the greatest chance to lift the category, since that is where the demand for hardwood lies.

Stringer advises other producers to be available and accessible to distributors and retailers. He says, “Have [the wood order] ready to go and on a silver platter.” Stringer sees hardwood’s marketshare decreasing over the next three to five years and feels that producers should respond by “hunkering down.” He adds, “We are not big enough to change LVT’s impact because the Shaws and Mohawks are into LVT and hurting their own wood business.”

Wood producers are looking to RSAs-in regions where hardwood sales are strongest-to help tell wood’s story and help balance the market by educating them on wood’s value story, its longevity story and its inherent sustainability story instead of immediately pushing customers to wood lookalikes in the resilient category. Natkin says, “Don’t immediately move someone over to a waterproof floor just because you think that’s what they need. Qualify the consumer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a retailer hear a consumer say, ‘I’m interested in a hardwood floor,’ and [the RSA] immediately goes to an LVT display.”

“It’s imperative we equip our retailers with the most up-to-date, clear information so they can feel confident in selling their products,” says Shaw’s Carrie Edwards Isaac.

Rossell notes, “If you think about truly Scandinavian design, imagine something very light, natural wood species and so on, but if you look at the furniture producers who make the classic Scandinavian-designed furniture-look at their online stores and in-stores-they are going dark. They are beginning to produce furniture in darker wood species like smoked oak and black-stained oak for instance and showing them on dark wood floors. Whereas in the U.S. market, most of our products are turning lighter and going more traditional Scandinavian.”

Babinski adds, “It seems like it happened overnight! We’ve moved away from dark wood floors to lighter and brighter options. The orange and cherry tones of many years ago fell out of favor for saddle and dark brown colors. The brown palette fell out of favor for the light, medium and dark greys. Grey has now become the new gunstock, and its popularity has soared as the new neutral. Now, along comes warmth; soft, warm neutrals are taking center stage.”

Open floor plans lend themselves to the wider/longer planks. Stepp notes that the 5” wide planks are now being replaced by 7” planks. Some producers are even offering a 9” or 10” width. Dixie’s Chateau engineered product was launched last summer and comes in a 9.5” width. “The width of individual hardwood planks affects the overall style and also how spacious a room feels,” says Babinski.

However, narrow strips are finding their way back into the spotlight to some degree, especially in residential remodel of older homes and in new construction in tightly congested

cities where space is at a premium (think condos between 700 and 1,200 square feet). Babinski says, “Narrow strips less than 3-1/4” look more traditional. Anything 5” or wider is considered a wide-width plank.” She reports that AHF’s 2.25” and 3.25” strip continues to sell well. Thompson reports that the designers Mirage works with admit they are seeing a return to the narrower strips, but so far demand is modest.

Hardwood producers follow trends closely and look to designers, exotic locales, nature, and furniture and cabinet producers to keep up to date. But now there are other sources contributing to the evolution in trends. The lines that once designated hardwood trends’ regional segregation are now blurring due to social media and other online influencers, exposing each area of the country to a wide variety of looks. Being responsive to trends is certainly the responsibility of wood producers but deciding on the trends to introduce can be risky.

Carrie Edwards Isaac, VP of residential marketing and consumer strategy for Shaw, points to Magnolia Market, Chip and Joanna Gaines’ online store for home décor, as a trend influencer in the U.S. And both Isaac and Rossell stress the importance of social media’s role in shifting hardwood trends. Through platforms like Pinterest and Houzz, not only are regional barriers being lifted but global ones are as well.

However, Somerset, a solid and engineered hardwood producer based in Kentucky, reports a different perspective on hardwood trends. “Trends are created by our distributors and our retailers, and if they get behind your product, all of a sudden people on the West Coast love it,” says Stringer. Somerset is one of the few remaining producers of solid hardwood products-alongside others such as AHF, Mirage and Mullican-that has remained loyal to the category since the beginning.

Currently, the West Coast is trending toward lightly brushed/lightly wirebrushed, low luster, wide planks and European looks, according to Stepp. Dixie’s Fabrica Wood line of engineered hardwood, was launched in 2018, initially in the Southeast, but it is now available across the country. In the Southeast, he reports that traditional looks and white oak are trending. Rustics and medium chocolates characterize wood flooring in the Rockies and Texas. Stepp also indicates that some markets are still calling for scraped wood products. Fabrica Wood offers two SKUs that are physically hand-scraped by an artisan in Salt Lake City; the wood is sourced from Canada.

AHF has taken a different approach to determine regional trends. According to Babinski, the firm is focused on two aspects when it comes to collecting data: national collections and geographic collections. AHF recently asked its customers to choose the color, species and textures from a number of hardwood samples they felt best suited their region. Babinski was surprised to discover that overall the blend across the country was similar with a few exceptions. The East Coast, West Coast and Texas leaned toward classic natural, gunstock and saddle colors, with lighter colors and greys being introduced. The West Coast trended toward warm neutrals and taupes with a mix of color in the Pacific Northwest.

TARIFF UPDATE
According to Market Insights, for 2019, overall wood flooring imports are down 19%; Chinese wood imports are down 38%; and Chinese resilient imports are up 16%. Alternative sources for wood are coming out of Vietnam and Cambodia, and, for now, the bulk of rigid LVT is being imported from China, which is being hit hard by the tariffs. For 2019, China ranks first for wood flooring imports, Canada is second, Vietnam is third, and Cambodia is fourth.

Carson says, “The uncertainty with tariffs and duties (which can run as high as 75% on engineered hardwood when you combine the two) has created chaos, but with this change, there has been tremendous opportunity to return to suppliers that can get it done day in and day out.”

AHF reports that it is expanding its Cambodian engineered hardwood plant to offset the impact of tariffs and duties on imports from China. With the LM Flooring acquisition, AHF has doubled its manufacturing volume from 12 to 24 million square feet. In 2020, the company will expand again to 50 million square feet of total capacity.

Copyright 2019 Floor Focus