Henry Ford once said “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” Due to requests for more design-related intel and insights, let us dive deeper into the subject of the interior design trade and how it relates to our hardwood flooring world. In October, I spoke on this topic at the NWFA Manufacturers Assembly in Nashville.
There is a great deal of frustration in hardwood flooring due to the market share being eroded by the consumer’s current crush on vinyl and composite core surfaces. I have been watching wood-look-alikes nibble away at actual hardwood for some time. It’s due in part to how much easier it is to sell something that is flat, mostly plastic, water-repellent, less expensive, easy to install, and easy to clean.
When I refer to this phase as the “Consumer’s Current Crush,” it is just that simple, and hopefully as short-lived as a crush. Crushes can lead to either delight or disappointment, and in this case, we can expect the latter. It’s worth noting there are centuries of proof of our innate love for authentic hardwood floors, and I believe that once homeowners see how dull and lifeless (and inauthentic) their fake floors are, they are going to be dying to replace it with an upgrade of hardwood floors.
For now, we must survive this phase, becoming stronger and wiser as a result.
Whenever we feel pressured or pinched in one area, it’s human nature to look around for other areas that might be less “painful.” Let me refer you to the book “Who Moved My Cheese,” a book about two mice living in a maze named “Sniff ” and “Scurry” who had to figure out what to do when their cheese was moved. It’s a worthwhile book to read and doing so could help you think differently in order to better anticipate, acknowledge, and adjust to change in order to turn your changes into “positives” in your own business and life.
If we people are smarter than Sniff and Scurry, we need to look to find out where the cheese has been moved. In our story, the “cheese” (the consumer’s desire for hardwood flooring) has not only moved, it is shrinking. Why? It’s complicated. It isn’t a quick and easy story to tell and harder than ever before because everyone is programed for short bursts of information. With the endless barrage of digital impressions, it is not only hard to get someone’s attention; it’s even harder to hold it. As an interior designer who has felt pinches over a lifetime of working, my opinion is that we have some sweet spots to focus on that could provide short- and longer-term results.
Designers are not an easy relationship because you need to speak their language. One of their languages is “aesthetics” and hardwood flooring is beautiful, natural, and long-lasting. Designers are also very social creatures, posting on social media and influencing a large number of consumers who rely on their expertise. Hardwood should not be a “stretch” for us to romanticize, because it does come in a wide variety of colors, species, and finishes from which to choose. One of our big challenges that I’ve written about recently has to do with living in a “flat world” where everything is reduced to a digital image, making all the products “seem equal” when they are nothing of the sort. In the flat world, consumers come to falsely assume that everything in the “wood world” is clean, flat, perfect, and easy, just like they see on Pinterest and Instagram. It’s easy to feel the substantial nature of wood…to hold it or to walk on it is a kinesthetic learning experience.
How do you encapsulate the beauty and essence of hardwood flooring in a short byte? A picture is worth a thousand words and many of the room scenes I see are not aspirational. And, the models featured in the rooms might not be projecting the right image of what we should be conveying about the brand. We only have nanoseconds to make a positive or negative impression…or worse, we aren’t noticed at all.
Whose attention do you seek? My suggestion is that you look to the designers to learn and grow. Pay attention to them, find out what it is they are specifying. They specify $77.95 billion dollars worth of products annually. Of that, flooring is $8.18 billion dollars and 88 percent of the designers are specifying hard surface flooring. Not bad for a group of professionals who totaled 69,222 in 2017 working in businesses numbering at 110,280 (and growing) with an expected total revenue of $16 billion.
The design industry as a whole is enjoying the robust economy as homeowners and business owners are making improvements to their existing structures, building new, and even expanding. When you combine the commercial, hospitality, institutional, and residential sides of design, the industry reports are all positive according to the ASID Billings Index:
“The ASID Interior Design Billings Index (IDBI), a key billings indicator for interior design firms and the profession, dipped in July to a score of 49.6. While an index score of 50 indicates firms saw no increase or decline in business activity, this is the fourth consecutive month of lower scores since the IDBI reached its highest score, 60.8, in over two years. Many panelists note that tariffs have increased prices and created uncertainty around the pricing of materials. The three-month moving average also slowed to a score of 51.5 in July compared to a score of 53.3 in June.”
“This month’s special questions asked our survey panelists if new building construction in their firms’ area impacted project inquiries in a significant way. The same questions were asked the last two years. One in four interior designers (23 percent) said that new building construction had impacted their firm in a positive way, down notably from 2017 when a positive impact was nearly 40 percent. The view that the impact of new construction is negative has grown from 3 percent in 2017 to 13 percent in 2019.”
APPLYING THE STATE OF THE DESIGN INDUSTRY TO HARDWOOD FLOORING
Housing, hardwood flooring, and interior design are connected – period. Better quality homes are built more times than not with hardwood flooring and other “natural” hard surface materials. Many homes today are still going with the site-installed solid hardwood provided to them by their contractors in order not to upset their construction schedule, which is subject to disruptions in momentum thanks in part to the shortage of skilled labor. However, 2019 is looking strong according to leaders across the design industry, who when surveyed, reported having business prospects throughout 2019 that looked very good. Many had projects already underway or committed to and expect that demand would continue through the remainder of the year.
Tariffs are also a challenge to both large and small design firms. Tariffs impact firms’ ability to be competitive with other firms v ying for the same projects, often driving down margins and squeezing the portions spent on flooring which goes in at the latter part of the project. Interest rate changes by the Fed are also challenging the design world; as well as competition with other firms; price increases on goods, services and construction materials; and shortages of skilled labor. The design industry is said to be at a cross roads and where they go next is up to who points them in the right direction. The future of design is full of possibilities. It is more important now than ever before in its history and plays a greater role in improving the quality of life for more people than ever before.
Emily Morrow Finkell is an interior designer and CEO of EF Floors & Design LLC in Dalton, Georgia, a provider of hardwood floors and home furnishings, and an NWFA design contributor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.