• Wood flooring accounts for about 20% of the floor coverings sector.
• The new-build residential market has been hit, but commercial and refurbishment markets are healthy.
• Engineered flooring is gaining market share.
• Oak remains the most popular species.

It’s an undisputable fact that wood flooring has regained its reputation as an aspirational floor covering, one which will provide years of service and enhance residential and commercial properties alike.

Wood flooring (including laminates) now accounts for around 20% of the floor coverings sector and continues to nibble away at carpet’s market share. Seen as fashionable and desirable in all market segments, demand for wood floors is holding up, even if manufacturers and retailers are having to work harder to keep sales to previous levels in the current economic climate.

“Suppliers and retailers are having to work harder and smarter to secure business,” said Neil Smith, flooring director at International Decorative Surfaces (IDS). “The downturn has affected everyone, but there are still massive opportunities that we can take advantage of.”

Evidence of expansion

“As an industry, sales have certainly been affected,” agreed Harvey Booth, UK sales manager at Kährs (UK) Ltd. “But there is still evidence of expansion and, at Kährs, we’ve continued to reach targets.”

He attributes some of this success to working with the company’s “solid customer base”, and repeat business is proving crucial for many operators.

“As an established business with a good reputation, most of our sales are driven by repeat business and established contacts, so we are in a strong position for the future,” said Peter Keane, managing director of The Natural Wood Floor Company. He’s not ignoring new business, however: “To help attract new customers we have had a complete review of our advertising strategy and are now increasing our marketing budget,” he said.

Dave Ellams, sales and marketing director at Atkinson & Kirby, is equally positive about future prospects. The company has just started advertising the impending launch of a new product, which has been a year in development. “We’ve got some pretty exciting stuff coming out in February which should make people sit up a bit,” said Mr Ellams. “It shows our confidence in the market.”

Refurbishment work

The new-build residential market has been hardest hit, but refurbishment work is still coming through. “There are pockets of new build that have continued, but I would say the split is now 70:30 in favour of refurbishment, stimulated by the consumers’ decision to improve their homes rather than move,” said Neil Smith.

“We’ve got a strong level of new-build projects in the pipeline,” said Peter Keane, “but our sales are predominantly refurbishment based.” It’s a similar story at Kährs and at Junckers: “Our business is still primarily new works,” said the latter’s sales and technical services manager, Steve Maltby, “but we expect to see more refurbishment this year, especially in the residential segment.”

The residential market still represents the biggest chunk of business for major wood flooring players, but the commercial sector is proving more immune to the downturn and is seen as the most promising, though not necessarily dramatic, growth area.

As well as 500 luxury riverside apartments in London, for example, notable projects for The Natural Wood Floor Co in 2008 included Westfield Shopping Centre in London and Christies Auction House.

“There are still areas of growth that involve government funding, such as hospitals, army barracks and, obviously, the Olympics,” said IDS’s Neil Smith. Junckers’ Steve Maltby agrees that, along with hospitals and sports facilities, schools will provide opportunities thanks to the government’s Building Schools for the Future scheme.

Wider boards

Style-wise, the trend is for wider boards. “The residential and commercial sectors are asking for solid wide boards or planks because they want long life, quality materials,” said Mr Maltby, adding that two-strip beech is still the popular choice for education and sports facilities.

“We’re seeing people moving to wider boards in both solid and engineered because they give a room a larger sense of space,” said Mr Smith.

Engineered flooring is gaining ground, too. “Consumers are becoming more educated in the performance and eco-benefits of the multi-layered construction,” said Kährs’ Harvey Booth.

“Engineered flooring is setting a new trend as it is such a versatile product,” said Peter Keane. “It is ideal for use with underfloor heating [because of its added stability] and is also popular for apartments, as sound insulation can be fitted underneath the wood,” he added. This year, to reflect this trend, The Natural Wood Floor Co is increasing its range of engineered products to include oak and ash parquet wood blocks.

Dave Ellams agrees that improved product knowledge is boosting sales of engineered ranges. “People are finally listening to what we manufacturers are saying,” he said. It’s a stable product, the applications are far greater and, as such, it should be more expensive than a solid – the perception used to be that it was a lower value product.”

This may be due, he said, to confusing engineered flooring with laminate flooring, not only because of its multi-layer structure, but also because of the way it was sold. “Instead of selling it as a more flexible solid, it was being sold as ‘one up from a laminate’.”

And, he added, the margins on laminate flooring are dangerously low. “We only deal in solid and engineered wood flooring and our parent company, Richard Burbidge, pulled out of laminates completely last October. There’s just no money left in it – everyone is trying to get the same slice of the cake – and the cake isn’t growing.”

Product development in laminates is centred on aesthetics, according to IDS’s Neil Smith. “There are a few companies looking at ways of replacing décor papers with direct printing, but all this will do is drive prices down, which in my opinion is the wrong thing to do. We have high street prices as low as £2.99/m² on laminate flooring – how much cheaper does it need to be?”

In terms of species selection, while beech leads the way in sports and education applications, oak is still king for other commercial and residential projects and more exotic species remain niche.

“Oak is still the species of choice, whether in its natural format or stained and distressed,” said Mr Smith. People are comfortable with it, he said, because it’s reassuringly familiar and can satisfy both traditional and contemporary design specifications.

Other species are moving up the ranks, however: Junckers reports a “substantial increase” in jarrah in commercial projects, thanks to its colour and perceived good environmental credentials. Meanwhile The Natural Wood Floor Co has seen a dramatic increase in sales of walnut over the last couple of years, although this has now stabilised due to its relatively high price.

Range of tastes

Stains and finishes mean that specifiers can now achieve the desired look almost no matter what the species and Kährs has found tastes range from extreme light – “whitewash and pale grey” – to extreme dark – “mocha and ebony”. “Exotic-toned” finishes are also much sought after where the appearance of tropical timber is desired, the company said.

For IDS the most noticeable trend is for natural colours. “They provide a neutral canvas for people to create a range of interior styles,” said Neil Smith. “Replacing a timber floor is a big investment, whereas a look can easily be changed with different paint colours and accessories.”

“Neutral” doesn’t mean “bland”, however, and IDS has seen sales of its “Tuscan golden oak, big earth and chocolate stained oak” take off. “With the continued design trend towards darker wood, in kitchen furniture, for example, it is encouraging the consumer to be more adventurous with richer coloured floors,” said Mr Smith.

Peter Keane agrees that, while the public is becoming more daring and specifying more unusual colourings, subtle tones, which enhance, rather than mask the natural beauty of the wood are the preferred option.

Realistically aged pre-oiled floors are the latest trend in Europe, according to The Natural Wood Floor Co, and Kährs has seen an increase in consumers requesting more “natural” looking product. “Years ago there was huge demand for clean grained timber, but now customers want the knots and gnarls left in, which is a big plus in environmental terms, too,” said Harvey Booth.

Improvements in modern oils have made these finishes more appealing and they are ‘catching’ up with lacquers. Brushed surfaces, the extra texture of which reinforces the natural look, are also gaining in popularity and manufacturers are looking to exploit this new-found favour. Kährs, for example, is launching a three-strip brushed and stained Harmony collection early this year, while Junckers has produced a finish that reduces the risk of accidents when liquid is spilled on a hardwood floor.