Strategic Exchange: Flooring categories compete for consumer preference - May 2019

By Kemp Harr

Preference for flooring among consumers in the U.S. is shifting, and the debate that is surfacing within the trade organizations for two of the more traditional flooring categories that have seen their marketshare eroding is whether or not the consumer is being misled.

As we note in this Annual Report issue, the growth of ceramic tile, hardwood and carpet has been negatively impacted by the unprecedented growth of rigid-core LVT. In an attempt to set the record straight for consumers, the

Tile Council of North America (TCNA) and the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) have both funded web-based communications initiatives to help clarify what is hype and what is reality. The website for the TCNA effort is Whytile.com, and the website for the NWFA is Woodfloors.org.

As an aside, both the wood and tile businesses sell roughly $3 billion worth of product in the U.S. on an annual basis (at wholesale value). Carpet, the largest of the three categories that are losing share, sells about $8.5 billion on an annual basis. As this point, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) has chosen not to initiate any counter communications efforts to mitigate the category’s losses to LVT. One potential explanation for this lack of defense is the fact that most carpet producers also make money selling LVT.

The crux of the issue here is that the different flooring categories do compete with each other, and when the consumer picks one over the other, fortunes shift. If the shift is from one company to another, it’s more of a game-changer than if it’s from one department to another within the same conglomerated firm.

TILE INDUSTRY UNHAPPY WITH LVT ADVERTISING CLAIMS
At the Coverings Expo last month, the TCNA held its usual press conference, but the tone at this year’s event became a bit more serious, as the Powerpoint slides started building a case that the consumer is being misled about the waterproof performance, durability, scratch resistance of “PBM.” PBM is a new three-letter acronym that the tile industry uses to label flooring that is constructed using plastic-based material. Instead of singling out LVT, the TCNA has grouped six flooring types that have plastic as a common denominator. They are resilient, LVT, WPC, SPC, CPC and RCB. Most of us are familiar with the first four, but the last two stand for clay polymer composite and rigid core board.

To ground itself, the TCNA conducted some consumer research that revealed that consumers choose to purchase PBM flooring because they believe the claims around scratch resistance, wet area usage and durability. But Eric Astrachan, the executive director with the TCNA, presented several examples where advertising messages and warranty fine print don’t match. Eric’s 38-slide presentation showed where Clemson University’s Advanced Materials Research Center has been studying the waterproof performance of flooring installation seams, as well as mold growth and slip resistance. In all three areas, ceramic tile’s performance proves it is much better suited for use as a flooring in wet areas.

TCNA’s primary issue isn’t whether PBM flooring is waterproof but whether the installation, complete with seams and floating over an undefined sub-base, should be positioned as suitable for wet areas. It’s not the performance of the product that is frustrating the tile industry; it is the fact that it claims to be something it’s not, and the research says consumers are believing it.

Other test results proved that scratch and durability claims also fell well below the performance of ceramic tile. In one case, Eric displayed packaging from one of the leading LVT brands, which showed a scratch-resistant shield, and then read the warranty paper from inside the box that said “scratches and scuffing” were not covered by this limited warranty.

Is it okay for a company to package a product with performance claims that it denounces on the warranty sheet inside the box? I’m guessing we haven’t heard the end of this issue.

If you have any comments about this month’s column, you can email me at kemp@floorfocus.com.

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