Hardwood Trends: Fashion versus forever - Oct 2017

By Jessica Chevalier

For many households, hardwood is the flooring surface of aspiration. Its natural beauty, variation and tone have inherent appeal, and it’s also desired for its warmth underfoot, not to mention its sound underfoot. What’s more, its standing as a natural product-long domestically grown and produced-carries patriotic and environmental ethos. Add to that the contemporary consumer’s obsession with the look of wood, not to mention their current preference for hard surface flooring, and it seems that hardwood should easily be dominating the residential flooring market.

However, changing mindsets and tastes among U.S. consumers, as well as a continuing confusion about the differences between and benefits of hardwood and wood-look products, have challenged the hardwood category, creating the need for greater consumer education across the spectrum of stakeholders who have investment in the category.

Hardwood has long been touted as a “forever” floor that can be refinished as needed to last the life of a home, and, for many years, the promise of forever was a compelling one for consumers. That concept has since been complicated by evolving consumer values.

For many, especially younger generations, the appeal of investment in “forever” isn’t what it once was. We replace our homes, our jobs, our vehicles and even our partners with some frequency. For decades, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to settle down in a home with their young children and live there through retirement-ultimately passing the family home along to the next generation-but that scenario is less common today, largely due to changes in the nature of employment.

Within the current workforce, it is relatively uncommon to hear of decades-long tenures with a single employer. An article in Fortune, entitled “Here’s Why Our Parents Stayed at the Same Job for 20 Years,” cites a poll showing that over 40% of America’s Baby Boomers stayed with their employer for at least 20 years, then notes, “But it is unlikely that their children or grandchildren will experience the same job tenure.” The article points to traditional pensions-no longer standard in the workplace-as one of the factors that held Baby Boomers in place, also noting that some Gen Xers and Millennials have seen their parents burned by the very corporations to which they dedicated their careers, and therefore avoid similar long-term employment scenarios. This trend toward impermanency in career and housing impacts how consumers invest in their homes, and that includes decisions about flooring. Resale value is top of mind with homeowners considering both whether they will love their “forever” floor for years to come, should they stay in the home, and whether potential buyers will find the floor appealing, should they need to sell. To that point, many experts, including Neil Poland, president of Mullican Flooring, report that homes with hardwood sell faster and have a competitive advantage over those with carpet or faux-wood flooring.

In spite of some whispers we have heard about consumers drifting back toward narrower width hardwoods, none of the retailers with whom we spoke reported that trend. In fact, all four reported that 5” is the new standard and that formats up to 9” are favored. Says Vaughn, “Five inch widths on engineered is as small as anyone wants to go. That’s our bread and butter today.”

In fact, Herndon’s customers favor even wider widths: 7”, 8”, 9” are standards, with custom planks up to 12” wide.

In Mondragon’s market, the climate keeps consumers from going super-wide, but 5” wide planks with light scraping and a matte finish are now considered the “entry” product.

None of the retailers note any return toward glossy styles either. “High gloss-no one wants that these days,” says The Floor Store’s Cambria Hance. “They want a delustered, matte finish. The trend has been going on for two years, but over the last seven months, it has gotten much, much more significant, even in the suburbs.”

Says Vaughn, “Double staining is popular, as is the timeworn look, which I compare to people buying faded or tattered blue jeans.” These “timeworn” looks include those with the look of old layers of paint showing through-a trend that Floor Focus noted in porcelain last Surfaces. “The big color is still grey, and I think we’ll start seeing a bit of blue and green,” Vaughn adds. “Right now, we’re just seeing a little bit sprinkled in here and there, usually in the greys.”

Double staining is not of interest to Herndon’s consumers, though another trend is taking hold. He says, “We tried French Bleeds, and people didn’t like those. People here like character a lot, and we are starting to sell a lot of contemporary looks. Phil Kean Design Group, out of Orlando, is building a whole community of modern homes, and they want more modern-look hardwood.”

As for where hardwood is going in the home, Vaughn reports that customers of today often want the bulk of their home to be one flooring product-more so than in the past. “I still think baths will be primarily tile, [sheet] vinyl or LVT, depending on price point, but we are seeing more hardwood in the kitchen, which I don’t necessarily agree with.”

Add to that the fact that the younger generations are accustomed to changing both their clothes and furnishings to fit current trends. Old Navy was started by Gap Inc. in 1994 and largely introduced Gen Xers and Millennials to the fast fashion concept-its mission, “Making current American fashion essentials accessible for every family.” Will Old Navy pieces last a lifetime? No, but they may last a season and, in fashion, that may well be long enough. In recent years, brands like H&M, Topshop and Forever 21 have further capitalized on this concept, and though all of today’s consumers might not subscribe to the idea of buying an outfit for a single event or one-time wear, we as a society don’t typically look at clothing as an investment to be altered or mended to extend the lifecycle as our ancestors once did.

To some degree, the same holds true with furnishings. To purchase a new sofa today is often cheaper than reupholstering an old one, and to purchase an inexpensive yet stylish area rug at Target or World Market to fill a space for a few years-rather than a quality piece that will last decades-is often both an economic and aesthetic choice. Many consumers simply can’t afford to invest in furnishings with a higher price tag, and what we love today, we may find dated tomorrow anyway. In this age of change, the one thing we can count on is that things will keep changing-in politics, in culture and in our living rooms.

All of this is to say that selling hardwood as a “forever” floor isn’t the slam-dunk that it once was. With lifelong purchases comes maintenance, which Millennials view as a significant negative, explains Eric Mondragon, hard surface buyer for RC Willey. “Millennials want the wood look, but they want no maintenance,” he says. “Millennials don’t want to maintain anything. Disposability is key. They are not used to having something last for a long time, and that pushes them towards the newer products, like LVT.” Of course, today’s pre-finished hardwood requires much less maintenance than the site-finished hardwoods of yesterday, so this is, in a sense, a testament to the need for consumer-focused education from the hardwood community.

Ultimately, however, the fact is, for Millennials-many of whom are struggling with student loan debt and poorer-than-expected job opportunities-forever can wait. We see this philosophy impacting Millennial marriage trends: according to a Huffington Post piece called “For Many Millennials, Marriage Can Wait,” “in every state, the share of people between the ages of 20 and 34 who have never married has risen sharply since 2000, and in cities where Millennials flock for jobs, the situation can be extreme: 81% of young people are still single in Washington, D.C., up from 73% in 2000.” We see it impacting Millennial childbearing trends: in 2015, the number of Americans 25 to 29 years-old and those 35 to 44 years-old who didn’t have children in their household grew by more than 5%, and for those 30 to 34 without children, numbers rose by 4% compared to four years earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. And we see it impacting the Millennials’ commitment to large investment purchases, like hardwood flooring.

However, Don Herndon, owner of Classic Wood Flooring in Melbourne, Florida, believes that Millennials will make large investments in quality items if the benefits are clearly laid out, adding, “Millennials are looking for a reason to buy something and don’t mind spending if they have a good reason.” Whether the manufacturer and retail sales associate present that “good reason” may be key to the category’s growth.

As for Millennials’ parents, according to Mondragon, Baby Boomers remain largely dedicated to wood. “Most Baby Boomers are hardwood customers,” he notes. “They grew up with wood, and they understand that variations and ‘flaws’ are the beauty of hardwood. Price isn’t an issue with Baby Boomers, and, in addition, they are not looking to replace it later.”

It will be interesting to see whether Millennials’ consumer trends fall in line with those of their parents once they have a few more decades under their belts. Don’t forget that many Baby Boomers were once hippies, who, for a time, traded in their predecessors’ concept of traditional marriage for the notion of free love, and who eschewed starter homes for shared apartments and VW buses. Once Millennials find themselves with gainful employment and reduced student loan debt, it seems likely that they, like prior generations, will commit more dollars toward investment purchases. After all, a wood-look floor will never be anything more than it is. The concepts of patina and age-highly desirable and long-term trends-are impossibilities with faux wood products but certainly have bearing with hardwood. An aged hardwood floor acquires a new type of beauty. An aged wood-look floor is just old.

Interestingly, the prior discussion does not even take into consideration the nature of the new generation of hardwood, which also has significant bearing. Today’s hardwood is largely much more fashionable than it once was. True, a classic 3” oak will always be, well, classic, but the looks that are getting consumers excited today are wider, longer and certainly not the smooth-façade, orange-toned hues of yesteryear.

What’s more, Ryan Vaughn of Georgia Carpet Industries points out that, “with most hardwood today, you can’t refinish if it is hand-scraped or has chatters or double staining without completely losing that look. Not only that, but by the time you sand and refinish, you’ll pay almost as much or more than you would to buy a new prefinished floor-and the finish won’t be as good.”

Among proponents of hardwood, one of the most common statements used to sell consumers on an investment in the category is, “Hardwood raises the value of a home more than any other floorcovering.” While that may be the case, the fact that today’s looks are timely rather than timeless may mean that they aren’t desirable long-term.

Let’s say that five years ago, for instance, you purchased a highly rustic, handscraped hardwood floor in a dark pewter tone. Today, wirebrushing is much more in vogue and double shading is hot, but your handscrape has another 20 years of life in it. Does an off-trend hardwood demand the same value as a timeless look when it comes to home resale? That is a judgment likely made by individual consumers.

Fashion, by its very nature, is changing, and to sell something highly fashionable that is also meant to last for decades or, indeed, a lifetime, is a complicated pursuit. Imagine if that pea green shag in your mom’s bedroom was as permanent as a hardwood floor.

Consumers equate cost with quality, and that line of thinking is generally sound. The cost differential between solid and engineered hardwood, however, can be a little deceiving.

Apples to apples, solid hardwood costs more because it requires thicker sections of raw material, but that doesn’t mean that solid hardwood is always the best choice. In fact, it is unsuited in some applications and, according to Ryan Vaughn, engineered often offers more style at a lesser cost. “Price conscious shoppers are more likely to buy engineered hardwood because they can get a better look for a cheaper price,” he says. Today, the retailer points out, there are a great many more hardwood options for people who don’t have a budget.

At the same time, Vaughn reports, “We are selling more higher-end wood than we have ever sold. The majority of our hardwood sales are under $3.00/square foot, but we do sell a lot of product that is well above $10.00/square foot.”

For consumers who can afford to buy whatever they want, such as Baby Boomers, Mondragon believes that getting something unique is of great value-since resale value on their home typically isn’t as critical in decision making, “For Baby Boomers, price is not an issue,” he notes. “They are looking for something to set their home apart. They don’t want to be like their neighbors. Price isn’t the issue; they want the visual.”

The Floor Store, which has eight locations in California, offers hardwood SKUs ranging from $3.00/square to $20.00/square foot, and Cambria Hance has found that customers who come in wanting hardwood are often willing to trade down on style, if they find that it is out of their budget, to a hardwood product with less styling-for instance, smooth rather than wirebrushed. She adds that price, above all else, is the biggest barrier to a hardwood sale.

A great deal has been written about how customers today are educating themselves online prior to entering a brick-and-mortar showroom. But, as we all well know, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a correct understanding of the products available and the options for their space.

Often, retailers report, consumers come in seeking solid hardwood because it’s what they know. Today, says Vaughn, engineered hardwood accounts for over 50% of his hardwood offering, but just a decade ago, it was only 10% to 20%. With the lengthy buying cycles for flooring, this means that a good portion of Vaughn’s consumers-and consumers in general-are still learning about engineered hardwood for the first time. “A lot of people still want solid,” the second-generation flooring retailer says. “Consumers relate engineered to fake wood. They think it’s laminate. They say, ‘That’s not real wood.’ In this industry, we do a poor job of educating consumers on a day-to-day basis. They don’t really understand why engineered may offer performance benefits.”

Indeed, Vaughn reports that consumers who come in looking for solid hardwood typically end up purchasing a hardwood-but sometimes they may end up with engineered. “Usually, people have done some homework,” he explains. “If they come in wanting hardwood, then they are typically thinking of solid hardwood. The choice to go with engineered is usually based on the subfloor.” He also serves many customers who are, what he jokingly calls, ‘wood snobs,’ adding, “These are the customers who only want wood. They know it adds value to the home.”

Vaughn reports that customers often express concern about hardwood’s ability to resist wear, indentation or water. In addition, he notes that “people mention having dogs, and I tell them that, if you buy a handscraped or wirebrushed look, the flaws will ‘fit in.’ But there isn’t a hardwood out there that a big dog won’t wear.” Some customers, he goes on to explain, come in knowing that they want a wood look but don’t have the budget for hardwood. These customers typically choose LVT or laminate. There are also those who need to sell their home quickly and choose a wood look, rather than real hardwood, as a stopgap.

In the dry climates that RC Willey serves (mostly in Utah), solid hardwood is not a good choice. In fact, the company, which will soon open its 12th store, carries only engineered hardwood. In spite of that, Mondragon reports that “it is difficult to convert solid shoppers to engineered. Many believe solid is the only real wood. They believe thicker is better. They look at the wearlayer on engineered and think they can wear through it. We educate them and provide information, of course. Some understand and think that they can get what they are looking for in engineered hardwood. Others don’t.”

When it seems like wood isn’t the correct choice for a customer based on their lifestyle, Mondragon and his team steer them toward wood-look options. “We always ask about the type of abrasives that the surface will encounter-dirt, sand, snow and ice-about the climate, kids, pets. When you start talking to them realistically about what to expect from a hardwood floor, some start to look at other products: laminate, LVT or even wood grain tile. A good percentage come in with hardwood in mind and discover that it isn’t their best option.” Interestingly, through the first quarter of this year, laminate was the largest hard surface category for RC Willey. Vinyl plank products surpassed laminate as the fastest growing category in the second quarter. “LVT is our fastest growing category at RC Willey-mainly because of its aesthetics and features,” says Mondragon. “The fact that it’s not a permanent floor is not a deterrent. Customers today look at hardwood and ceramic and decide that they may not want to live with the same floor for the next 20 years. Ease of maintenance and replacement are key selling points for LVT and WPC.”

Like Mondragon, Herndon carries only engineered floors due to the climate of the area that he serves-which, in this case, is extraordinarily humid-and because almost all homes in the area are built on slabs. However, due in part to the high percentage of non-natives in Florida, the company has many consumers who come in seeking solid, because the flooring type was common in the location where they resided previously. Herndon doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to selling customers the floor that will serve them best long-term. “When people come in wanting solid, we tell them why they don’t want to make that choice living in Florida,” he says. “In our climate, solid hardwood will cup, warp and buckle. That’s not a defect or warranty issue, that’s the nature of the product in this environment. So if you want your floor to be flat, put in engineered.”

Interestingly, Classic Floors-which sold hardwood flooring only until the Great Recession, when it “made room” for other flooring products-converts a lot of non-hardwood shoppers into hardwood buyers. “Many of our customers have heard, ‘You don’t use hardwood in Florida,’” says Herndon. “But we reassure them that if you use proper moisture resistance and do a proper install, even without AC, it will not be a problem. Installation is the key to the thing.” And, in fact, the retailer offers a lifelong installation warranty on his hardwood floors.

Ultimately, Herndon believes that his customers appreciate his honest and straightforward approach, adding, “Because we are in such a techy area, customers are fairly educated. They have searched online before they’ve come in to the store. We tell the truth regarding product performance, whether it’s to our benefit or not.” Herndon reports that customers who come in seeking hardwood never deselect the flooring in favor of a wood-look product.

Cambria Hance, general manager of The Floor Store, takes a similar approach, noting, “We have customers who come in wanting an expensive hardwood. We qualify them and ask about lifestyle, and if the floor they want doesn’t work, we give them other options. Sometimes we’ll have customers who walked in planning to spend $15,000 and end up at $7,000 or $8,000 for a floor that’s more suitable for their lifestyle. If they do switch from hardwood, nine out of ten times they are going to WPC. WPC hit our market hard about a year ago and has been very strong over the last seven months. Laminate has been decreasing rapidly, and WPC has been increasing full force.” Ultimately, Hance believes that the best strategy is to qualify customers as soon as possible and steer them quickly toward the product category that best fits their needs.

Domestic manufacturers look at on-shore production as a game-changer in the marketplace and proudly tout their American-made statuses. But does U.S.-made have the power with consumers when it butts up against cost?

“The U.S. flag on a sample is always a positive,” says Herndon. “Apples to apples, imports have always been a little cheaper, but that is changing with tariffs. American producers will benefit. Price is always considered, but if you show benefits that cost more, the customers will take advantage. Made in USA is a big selling point.”

Herndon points out that with both Patrick Air Force Base and a Veterans Affairs hospital nearby, he serves a lot of military and retired military in his store, and with those populations a patriotic message really holds sway.

Among Vaughn’s customers, domestically made product is a boon but not something for which customers are inclined to spend more. “U.S.-made is more of a selling feature than something that customers ask about,” Vaughn points out. “It’s an added benefit. But if Chinese and American products are side by side, and Chinese is substantially cheaper, the customer might choose on price.”

“Customers are very patriotic, unless it costs them money,” Mondragon notes. “Sometimes they will ask about where the product is made-especially after the 60 Minutes exposé on Lumber Liquidators-so we started talking about it then. We have our products labeled ‘Made in the USA’ to show that we have proud partners and are willing to show who they are, but in the end, they buy from RC Willey-we are the brand. They trust us to bring in products that meet the proper certifications. If the products are virtually the same, yet the U.S.-made one comes with a higher price tag, they will likely choose the import. Patriotism only goes so far.”

Hance says that country of origin hardly ever comes into play with her customers, adding, “If it’s laminate, yes, they care about where it was made. Otherwise, it really comes down to style and color. Ultimately it comes down to color. That’s it.”

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Engineered Floors, LLC, U.S. Census Bureau, Lumber Liquidators