NWFA Expo Review: the industry focuses on wood's inherent advantages - Jun 19

By Beth Miller

An all-star panel of hardwood flooring experts kicked off the opening session of the 2019 National Wood Flooring Association’s Wood Flooring Expo, held May 1 to 3 in Fort Worth, Texas. The panelists discussed wood flooring’s marketshare loss versus the other flooring categories, LVT’s impact on the category and solutions to the installation labor crisis. Ultimately, panelists agreed that the hardwood category’s success depends on the industry’s ability to tell wood’s story and tell it well.

The tone of the opening session was noticeably more serious than past expos with a “business comes first” attitude as NWFA leaders and members took the stage to discuss problems and solutions. “Make Your Mark” was the theme for the expo, stemming from the need for the hardwood industry to put forth a concerted effort to take back marketshare from the other categories, make an impression on consumers with wood’s advantage story, and literally mark hardwood products with a sticker of the NWFA’s newly designed logo. The NWFA recently released a formal definition for hardwood flooring alongside its “Real wood. Real life.” campaign to help promote the category.

Among the panelists, Isabelle Brose, managing director at the European Federation of the Parquet Industry, provided a synopsis on the European hardwood market, indicating that the category is also struggling, even though European consumers state they prefer hardwood over other flooring options-which is what Americans say as well. Brose says LVT is taking marketshare and points to the marketing efforts behind its positioning as “greener than wood,” contributing to wood’s struggle. Brose is convinced that the hardwood category’s success pivots on manufacturers, distributors and retailers doing a better job of telling its story.

Shaw Industries' vice president of hard surface, Drew Hash, spoke to the flooring manufacturers’ responsibility in promoting the category by asking, “How do [flooring manufacturers] perform in telling the wood story from a consumer benefit perspective?” He pointed out that consumers are spending more money on in-home technology and less on flooring; however, the moisture story resonates with consumers and Hash contended that if flooring manufacturers, particularly wood manufacturers, focus heavily on making products more robust through water-resistant or waterproof technology, consumers will be swayed back toward spending on flooring.

According to Chris Zizza, president of Massachusetts-based C&R Flooring and the NWFA’s outgoing chairman, commercial contractors need to learn to sell hardwood better. He also noted that, while LVT does have a role in areas where moisture can be a problem, installing hardwood outside of these moisture-sensitive areas adds value to the home and promotes a healthy environment.

Michael Martin, CEO of the NWFA, noted that there has been some confusion about the NWFA defining wood flooring as “any flooring product that contains real wood as the top-most wearable surface of the floor.” That includes solid wood, engineered wood and composite engineered wood. So a veneer, no matter how thin, on top of any type of base whatsoever, now qualifies as a real wood floor under the composite engineered wood floor definition. Martin asserts that the definitions serve to help determine what isn’t wood.

Bruce Zwicker, flooring industry consultant, moderated the panel and moved the discussion to the installation labor crisis, asking panelists to share what they were doing to help remedy the issue. One solution is to reduce the amount of time spent installing products so that the existing labor pool can complete more jobs in less time, and also making the idea of purchasing new flooring more appealing to home owners since they would not have to deal with lengthy installations. Shaw’s Hash said, “Everyone is dealing with [the labor shortage]. So how do we make our product easier to install so as not to disrupt time in the owner’s home?”

According to Zizza, he and his company embraced the immigrant workforce by paying for English classes before teaching them about wood. In addition, Zizza and his company has partnered with the NWFA to start programs in local tech schools to teach juniors and seniors how to finish hardwood flooring. Following graduation, these students have the opportunity to enter a career as a hardwood flooring craftsman.

The installation labor crisis and the lack of viable solutions contributed to the foundation of the NWFA’s new apprenticeship program. The attitude behind the program is “grow your own,” as Zizza puts it. For the first six months of the trainee’s education, 50% of the cost is subsidized by the government. It is a non-union program. Martin emphasizes that upon completion of the program, graduates are only 30 to 40 hours shy of an associate degree in construction, should they decide they want to continue on their education path.

The 2020 Wood Flooring Expo will be held April 28 to 30 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS
AHF Products, formed at the end of last year when American Industrial Partners acquired the hardwood division of Armstrong Flooring, has developed a product strategy leveraging the significant brand equity that it inherited from Armstrong. In recent years, Armstrong had more or less abandoned its brands, with the exception of Bruce, which is a giant in home centers and the most prominent hardwood brand in the market, and Homerwood, its designer brand. Now AHF is reviving other key brands, including its higher end Robbins, its high-performance Hartco and its value-oriented Capella.

American Industrial Partners is a private equity firm with experience in hardwood operations, and AHF is already investing in its business, including the purchase of LM Flooring.

Mullican showcased its unfinished engineered program alongside its Wexford collection. While unfinished engineered wood is not new-Owens Flooring pioneered it in 2001 and continues to sell it today-Mullican reports that it is becoming more popular. Additionally, Mullican is offering four herringbone patterns that come in 3-1/2” and 5” widths. The products are designed to correspond with other Mullican collections.

Mannington’s most popular line is its Bengal Bay collection. The multi-width acacia product is available in six colors: Coffee, Sand, Saffron, Tiger’s Eye, Salt and Reef. The firm reports that the popularity of each color depends on the region. Number one in Canada is Reef, while Sand is tops in the U.S. followed by Saffron.

Maison Triumph was launched at Surfaces 2019 and is made up of white oak, maple and hickory. The three colors-Gold, Silver and Platinum-come in lengths up to 7’.

Canada-based Mirage introduced some new textured looks in its current collections. Both its Natural and Sweet Memories collections added a few wirebrushed looks. A unique engraved look was added to the Admiration collection combined with the firm’s DuraMatt finish on its maple SKUs.

Mirage also introduced the Texas collection, a line of products designed specifically for the Texas region. The best-seller is Golden Oak-a rich, medium brown. Moving forward, the company revealed it will be targeting the builder market by introducing products that fall under price points that appeal to that segment.

American OEM launched its new line of hybrid flooring, Raintree, at Surfaces 2019. It features a real hardwood wearlayer backed by a rigid core and is finished with a moisture- and scratch-resistant urethane. The line contains 14 SKUs in three collections made up of white oak and hickory. Raintree is marketed as “waterproofed” based on the materials used in the core and the application of a waterproof finish to the real hardwood layer.

Emily Morrow Home’s entire offering of engineered white oak products is made in the U.S. For 2019, the firm launched its new More Core collection, made up of 12 SKUs in a new 9” width. Four of the SKUs are sliced-face and the other eight are sawn-face. The colors span a wide range from light to a unique black color called Total Eclipse with a lustrous wood grain.

The most popular color, Moon River from the Safari collection, started as a taupe for a custom commercial job and was eventually turned into a running line offering. The sawn-face surface has a smooth, subtle grain that highlights the wood’s character but offers a clean look.

Maxwell Hardwood Flooring launched its high-end Legacy Reserve white oak collection in 2017. Reserve is a 3/4" unfinished solid wood offering. And an engineered version is now available in the Reserve line.

Harris Wood introduced its Americana Escape collection at the NWFA show, available in two lines: Mountains and Trails. The low gloss, wirebrushed collection has 13 SKUs that are 8’ long and 7-1/2” wide with a 2mm face. With color names like Appalachian-a nod to the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast, and Summitt-a play on words, referencing a mountain summit and the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt, Harris Wood is setting itself up to tell a story.

It also launched an entry-level wood collection called Weekender that is 48” long and 6-1/2” wide with a 1.2mm face.

Somerset conducted a survey at Surfaces 2019, asking attendees to look at the nine prototypes on the booth floor and vote for their favorite. The potential new introductions fell into two of its collections: wide plank and specialty. Three winners were showcased at the NWFA Expo but have yet to be named. Somerset tested another product at the show-a mixed species look made out of red oak-and reported that feedback from attendees was positive.

The company is looking into adding a visualizer tool to its website, but has not yet found an option that fits its needs.

Mercier launched its new Naked Wood line at Surfaces 2019. Part of the Nature collection, the new line measures 81/8” wide and comes in lengths from 60” to 87”. It is available in unfinished and prefinished hickory, maple and white oak boards.

Lifecore Flooring Products’ H2ome waterproof hardwood flooring was on display at the expo. The core is constructed with SPC, while the wearlayer is made of hardwood. With nine coats encapsulating the wearlayer, the core and the edges, the product is completely sealed, resisting water saturation for up to 72 hours. It is available in oak, maple, hickory, acacia and walnut. It is installed with a lock system and does not require acclimation prior to installation. The product is backed with a 50-year lifetime warranty.

Välinge came to the show with several new products, including a modified 5G click system for herringbone installations, and also showcased its Nadura and Woodura products, which use compressed wood powder technology for a durable, high performance surface. The products are designed for a wide range of applications-flooring, countertops, desktops, etc. With IKEA in mind, the firm designed its Three Spine click system that allows for the quick assembly of furniture such as desks and shelving. And finally, the firm is working toward a product with a water-resistant core. The challenge is producing one that is PVC-free.

Tramex launched its new Feedback Data Logger and app. Two versions are available and both work with iOS and Android mobile devices. Data is transmitted via Bluetooth, measuring ambient RH, temperature, dew point, grains per pound, in situ RH, and the list goes on. The app also allows users to create and export spreadsheets, charts and reports. The technology is capable of measuring up to 100,000 data point entries. Connectivity runs up to 165 feet. The DL-RHTX version is ASTM F2170 compliant.

It also showcased its Hygro-i2 in situ RH reusable probe-an alternative to the single-use disposable probe. Users can perform both in situ and hood type RH testing. It is designed to be used with the Tramex DL-RHTX Data Logger, CMEX II meter or the MRH III meter in concrete flooring and walls.

Ark Floors, the U.S. division of A&W, a Chinese timber firm, came to the NWFA show with solid and engineered offerings. While its solid products come from China, its engineered flooring is made in Cambodia. And though the firm offers trending species like white oak, its range includes a lot of exotics. One of its hottest species is jatoba, but it also produces flooring from birch, hickory, merbau, tigerwood, mahogany, acacia and cumaru.

Woodpecker, a firm out of Wales in the U.K., has been in the flooring business for 18 years and in the U.S. market for about a year and a half. The higher-end firm has a solid hardwood program, but most of its product is engineered using white oak from Germany. Its sawn veneers range from 3mm to a super-thick 6mm.

The firm, whose products wholesale from about $5 to $11 per foot, also offers laminate flooring, a bamboo line and SPC flooring.

Germany’s MeisterWerke, a wood flooring company founded in 1930, had on display its Lindura product, which infuses wood powder technology from Välinge into a thin hardwood veneer. The composite engineered wood offers higher performance characteristics than most wood products because the wood powder increases the durability and impact resistance of the veneer. It also allows the firm to use wood veneers from softer species like walnut for high traffic applications.

Like many of the hardwood firms at the show, Meister also offers a rigid product. Its particular formulation features a core made from chalk and rapeseed oil.

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