It's not surprising that the wood-look laminate flooring category closely parallels hardwood flooring when it comes to style, finishes, and formats, but it still might amaze some to see how closely laminates can resemble the real thing. Clear style trends have surfaced in the hardwood category and laminate manufacturers have been busy developing products that follow these trends.
“There's more of a focus on the antique and distressed look, but also on exotics,” says Larry Browder, general manager of laminate flooring for Armstrong. “Both categories are very hot in wood, and laminate follows the same trends.”
Experts say that consumers usually buy flooring based first on design and color, not price. A more realistic appearance has a greater customer appeal, according to Rob Carney, owner of flooring retailer and installation company Foxy Carpet One in Ocala, Fla.
Vastly improved technologies allow laminates to better emulate the dimensionality of natural woods. The Embossed-in-Register (EIR) technology used by many manufacturers creates textured surface characteristics that match the looks in the graphic layer to give a 3-D appearance and finish. “The Embossed-in-Register technology allows more definition to the pattern, instead of just a 2-D visual,” says Scott Moore, Weyerhaeuser's North America flooring manager.
“We're all striving to come up with more authentic formats and textures, and registered embossed [EIR] has been quite strong in the industry,” agrees Don Cybalski, design manager for Pergo.
Some manufacturers are also using a micro-bevel along plank edges to give laminate floors more dimension and a furniture-like quality.
And although the perennial favorite in hardwood and laminate has been oak and oak looks, homeowners are also interested in a more varied selection of species to choose from, whether a diverse array of domestics or more exotic species like Brazilian cherry, bamboo, or African walnut. In fact, according to Steve Bunch, director of business development for Columbia Forest Products, only about 50 percent of the laminate flooring patterns sold are oak looks.
“[Consumers have] become more conscious of the different woods that are available and are looking for more decorative items for their homes. They see laminates as a more affordable and more durable means of accomplishing this high-end look,” points out BHK's director of laminate flooring sales Ken Riley.
“Woods that are protected or would cost a fortune to buy are the ones that are starting to be imitated,” adds Rob Tarver, manager of marketing and national accounts for Wilsonart.
Laminate formats are changing, as well. Manufacturers are offering more narrow plank options, which appeal to consumers because they are closer to the width of traditional natural wood strip floors. Laminate floors in 5-, 3½-, and even 2½-inch widths are growing in popularity. Indeed, Kirby Lammers, general manager for flooring retailer Jones Carpet One in Houston, Texas, sees his customers gravitating toward more narrow widths.
What all this comes down to is differentiation—for the manufacturer, the dealer, the builder, and ultimately the homeowner. Sheffield Lake, Ohio–based Abby Road Lumber's general manager Dennis Bring sums it up: “People are just looking for something different.