Laminate Flooring has made the most significant change to the flooring industry in the last 25 years and continues to make tremendous changes and improvements over is hard surface counter parts.
In Europe they have been enjoying its features and benefits for several decades but not as laminate flooring as we know today. Decorative laminate was really the origins and the beginning of what now is known as laminate flooring. The decorative laminate was widely used in kitchen counter tops and furniture. As the technology evolved in the counter top laminate industry it was clearly made invisible that with the endless number of decors that could have been created, could also be created and used on the floor.
The idea of laminate flooring was born. There have been many technical challenges the first of which was how can you take a simple counter top laminate and create a flooring product, the flooring product will take far more abuse by being walked on and a wear layer was created.
There has really been no stopping the technical tidal wave of improvements and ideas that followed. Led mainly by the European countries laminate flooring gained more market share year after year, no market experienced such rapid growth as North America. Massive marketing campaigns led by such brands as Pergo who are now synonymous with laminate flooring introduced laminate flooring to the American Public in the early 1990s.
The actual history of laminate flooring is quite short in North America, because Pergo had achieved household recognition with the new flooring products Laminate flooring in North America was broadly referred to as "Pergo" floors again the synonymous status and the 'holy grail' of all brands.
In 2000 laminate flooring was a glue product; even so the market share within the flooring industry in North America continued to grow at a double digit pace. Many of the other US traditional floor covering manufacturers of carpet and vinyl added laminate flooring to their portfolio of products.
Then so was born the private label laminate. Laminate flooring was easy to private label you simply changed the insert or the packaging and then that created another brand or line of flooring. This was especially useful for the hardwood and carpet manufacturer's to get on board with this new product. The traditional manufacturers of carpet and hardwood have huge distribution networks and with their own branded line of flooring were able to place thousands of new flooring displays in a matter of months and new brands started appearing everywhere. This continued to drive the growth in the USA.
As traditional US manufacturers of carpet and vinyl presented themselves as laminate flooring manufacturers, advertised the products, placed laminate flooring displays and drove sales.
Time Line in the US Market The next stages of growth were equally fast and I will break them down chronologically:
2000 was particularly painful for the Carpet Manufactures in Dalton, Georgia they were completely blindsided by the aggressive marketing of laminate flooring against their carpet and that is where the laminate took most of their market share from touting the Laminate Flooring product as hypo allergenic and showing close ups of carpet mites and bugs did nothing to help the domestic carpet manufacturers.
All hard surface flooring companies benefited. It was an exciting year for laminate flooring salesmen, even with terrible installation demonstrations and glue together flooring.
2001 Every year that preceded 2000 involved new, exciting and innovative changes to the laminate flooring market. The first change really started in 2001 glue free laminate. This was first introduced with metal clips on the back and during sales presentations as you tried to put it together you almost needed a sledge hammer, it was more difficult than the glue together method. Not very popular but the concept was created all we needed was the design and solution.
2002 A year later the technology of glue-less laminate flooring arrived, introductions of glue-less laminates began again revolutionizing the floor covering industry. Unilin Industries of Belgium introduced Quick-Step into the US market. Quick-Step utilizes the patented Uniclic joint system. Several other manufacturers bought licenses to use the Uniclic joint technology thereby acknowledging Uniclic as the industry standard for Glue-less technology.
Still 95% of the USA market was using glue together laminate, it took yet more aggressive marketing and this time mainly led by the home centers with names like 'Easy-Lock', 'Quick-Lock', 'Speedy-Lock', etc , to drive the consumer towards the exceptionally friendly DIY glue-less laminate flooring ranges.
It was predicted in 2002 that buy 2004 100% of the laminate flooring industry will be glue-less.
2003 This again provided to be a dynamic year within the laminate flooring industry, sales of the product per square foot continued to climb, but lawsuits with regards to patents over the locking system and who created and who could use it surfaced and would continue on for many years. Aside from the lawsuits the technology now happy with the glue-less free install and now a specially DIY friendly product focused on creating the product to be as realistic as hardwood as possible.
2004 This saw some dramatic changes in the quality of the laminate product itself. The standard glue-free laminate flooring product was 7 "wide by 54" long and it had a light 'tapping' effect, the panels went together with glue-less free locking system. Mostly all of the products were imports and mainly from Europe.
Towards the end of 2004 laminate flooring factories (although not fully integrated and small in comparison to the European counterparts) started appearing across the USA. The larger US manufacturers of carpets invested in laminate flooring facilities although they were not fully integrated (we can explore the importance of vertical integration later). But this show the US retailer and distributor that the product was here to and it was time to start backing a horse.
This led to more innovation from overseas, the first was a wood grain texture – the laminate itself had heavier wood texture but it was random and not too realistic in effect a modest upgrade, at first all manufacturers tried to sell this improvement for $ 0.20SF to distribution but the reality was their was no manufacturer cost increase to produce this texture – it was just a different pressure plate.
2005 The lawsuits over the locking system continued, incidentally the locking system lawsuit is not about the easy angle long joint of the laminate flooring, all the law suits focus on the end locking joint.
The chase to create an exact wood replicate of hardwood flooring continued and this led to a technology called 'Register and Emboss' or 'Embossed and Registered'. The idea of this was for the pattern of the oak for example to be perfectly indented into the wood panel, so the grain of the Oak or Cherry was realistic to the touch.
All the manufacturers soon chased this technology, it required a relatively simple process, create the correct paper (décor pattern) and then have a press plate and the end of the manufacturing process to match that paper décor and then you have the grain embossed.
Legal arguments over who came up with that technology all ensued.
2006 The year of branding, distributors with 'own brand' tried to position themselves as manufacturers – one of the largest being a vinyl manufacturer tried to position themselves as market leaders. Acquisitions also followed, Mohawk Industries bought Unilin 'Quick-Step' in 2006. This also became the year of the home business business, where having your labeled product in one of the three main US home centers was the ultimate goal.
One of the major carpet manufacturers and distributors with there factory in Dalton gained the business with Home Depot. Pergo was well positioned with a vinyl manufacturer you had private labeled their laminate line into Lowes Home Improvement Stores. Being a vinyl manufacturer and not a laminate manufacturer create a major problem and a critical weakness as Lowes Home Improvement shifted their purchasing policy to 'only' buy factory direct.
A major Swiss group and manufacturer of laminate flooring also with the world's largest factory in Heiligengrabe, Germany had been quietly building a factory in Barnwell, SC and at the right time were able to replace the vinyl manufacturer as supplier to Lowes Home Improvement.
2007 This really saw the legal issue on the locking system end as two legal systems emerged, one under Valinge Innovation and Uniclic Licensees each with approximately 100 partners paying royalties of roughly $ 0.04SF to $ 0.07SF. Licensees were granted all over the world and this led way to the re-emergence of Chinese laminate flooring.
In the mid 1990 China was one of the fastest growing laminate flooring markets in the world and most of this was supplied by shipping in container from Europe, there were huge distributors in China 100 containers a month in size – or 2,400 pallets a month. It did not take long for Chinese ingenuity to copy the process and buy 2001, China had a slew of factories (with large Government subsidies), some of this product came back as imports in to the USA, but the legal issues with locking systems and potential freezes of stock, cease and desist letter flying about scared off most distributors.
2008 China was back, this time the large factories had license agreements and were legal, the machines that made the laminate flooring were from Europe and the product quality was excellent.
There market tactics were equally excellent, instead off going after the low end dog fighting market of the 7mm and 8mm, they created a new look. A narrow plank and beveled the edges, this new narrow plank was approximately 5 "wide compared to the standard 8" from Europe, the 5 "wide was a one plank look and combined with the bevel, register and embossing they had created the ultimate flooring .
This was it, everything over the last 25 years culminated to this point a floor that had a narrow board look 5 inches wide, beveled or micro beveled on all four side, realistic textured surface and a lifetime warranty.
The European's adjusted, but they were for once on the back foot, China instead of going after the low end market aimed high with a high quality, the highest quality laminate you could make and make it affordable to the US market .
2009 It is not clear where we can go from here, but the same was probably said in 2005, laminate flooring is now so good in appearance that you can not tell it apart from real hardwood, the only clue is the price laminate flooring is far less expensive than real wood with more color choices. 2009 will be a difficult economic year and so will 2010. Consumers will focus on quality and price. Brand will become less important as the consumer becomes more educated. The huge price fluctuations four sided beveled and narrow plank from one distributor priced at $ 5SF and from another $ 0.89SF and yet absolutely no technical difference in the product. Consumer will research and the gap will close.
Laminate flooring in the US market is a remarkable story of growth and ingenuity. I do not think that a couple of tough economic years will have much impact on its future survival. It is an excellent product and with some effort and research by the consumer you can get incredible value.