By Leah Bodenhamer, Shannon Gayton, Kyle Toruta, and Lauren White
A HINT OF OPTIMISM FOR 2023 DESPITE THE CHALLENGES
The wood flooring industry is cautiously optimistic for 2023, with 21 percent of respondents in our annual NWFA Industry Outlook survey expecting sales to be up significantly (eight percent or more), and 18 percent expecting sales to be up somewhat (three to seven percent). Close to 40 percent expect sales to be the same as in 2022.
However, persistent challenges such as supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, and economic uncertainty continue to worry some NWFA members. As a result, about a quarter of respondents expect a sales decrease in 2022, and about 23 percent expect the same in 2023.
Respondents’ biggest concerns going into 2023 included the economy (72 percent), supply chain challenges (43 percent), and labor shortages (43 percent).
Other concerns included:
- Political climate
- Potential housing bubble collapse
- Competition from non-wood flooring
- Government regulation
To combat these challenges, most NWFA members in the survey are focused on improving processes to become more efficient (72 percent). About 43 percent are adding new product categories, lines, or services. Respondents also reported plans to prioritize the following initiatives in the coming year:
- Add new team members
- Invest in or leverage existing technology for growth
- Make improvements to increase the resiliency of the supply chain
Many are cautious about a potential contraction in consumer spending. One member said, “I constantly am evaluating the state of my business and the industry. It’s important to be flexible.”
Another plans to purchase more from domestic producers in the U.S. and Canada while reducing reliance on Asian imports.
Supply Constraints Continue to Put Pressure on Members
More than 86 percent of all NWFA members reported continued supply chain disruption and have experienced business impacts including:
- Lost sales
- Longer lead times
- Increased inventory holdings
- Increased pricing
- Increased back orders
Each NWFA member segment experienced significant supply chain disruption. All of the NWFA distributors surveyed reported supply chain challenges, followed by retailers (95 percent), manufacturers (77 percent), and contractors (77 percent). Distributors reported the highest level of supply chain disruption in the following product categories:
- Engineered flooring
- Raw materials – hardwood
- Solid hardwood flooring
More than 74 percent of NWFA members reported labor shortages as a primary cause of those extended lead times. Freight disruption and production facility shutdowns or scalebacks also have played a big role.
One NWFA manufacturer cautions there hasn’t been a significant enough decline in demand that could alleviate current supply chain difficulties. “Continued demand outstrips supply due to labor and human resources challenges, despite the higher interest rates.”
To combat supply chain disruption, NWFA members reported plans to source from new suppliers, as well as improve communication with current suppliers.
Other strategies included adding new suppliers for certain products.
Michael Mann, owner of Floor Craft Designs, says his warehouse played a pivotal role in his company’s ability to overcome supply chain difficulties. “Between the 3,500-square-foot warehouse and our financial ability to make large purchases, those are the two things that have kept us free and clear of a lot of the inventory or lack of inventory issues.”
About 46 percent of companies in the survey said that they have seen business impacts from the Ukraine conflict on the supply of Russian Baltic birch used for engineered wood flooring. Impacts have included extended lead times, reduced availability, and higher pricing.
One NWFA manufacturer noted disruptions in birch supply and said, “Getting birch plywood from Russia is near impossible.”
Many suppliers changed their lines to make up for the unavailability of that material, instead choosing domestically sourced alternatives such as poplar core. One member said, “We have decided to stop using Russian Baltic birch plywood and moved to a two-ply engineered system.”
Address the Labor Shortage
Just over 73 percent of survey respondents reported difficulty finding adequate skilled labor in 2022, up 23 percentage points from last year’s survey when just about half had the same challenge. Some members speculate that the after-effects of government subsidies are hurting the labor pool’s desire to work.
Alternatively, Corey Cathcart, president of Integrity Floors, believes people are willing to work, but companies must consider their compensation strategies. “The younger generation does want to work, and this is an industry that pays well. Wood is a luxury item. When it comes to attracting talent, we’re able to offer a competitive salary, even as a small company that specializes in just wood. We’re able to offer something competitively where they can afford to live.”
Other members agree. Paul Stringer, president and CEO of Somerset Hardwood Flooring, said his only problem is getting enough employees to make enough product. “We’ve increased pay, like a lot of companies have. But it’s not just pay, it’s how you treat people. We’re trying to take that whole approach of making them feel at home. We have a family here and we have a lot of employees who have been with us for 20 or 25 years and more. We want Somerset to be a good place to work, and we feel it is, but we can always improve.”
One member thinks the labor gap can be mitigated with a comfortable living wage and acknowledgment of a job well done. “I have had the same guys since the beginning. I pay better than many of my competitors. This means my crews don’t have to rush through their jobs to be able to earn enough money to live comfortably. They can take their time, do a great job, avoid callbacks, and have job satisfaction. I don’t want a revolving door of unskilled laborers. I prefer having skilled craftsmen.”
Referrals remain a top strategy to find labor, but NWFA members also have succeeded with classifieds/online job postings, social media, and working through channel partners.
Many members also are turning to younger, less experienced trainees to fill labor gaps. One member said that they have lowered expectations regarding resumes and have invited more people to interview than in the past with the hopes of finding someone who can be educated and taught.
In addition to teaching the skills needed to perform certain roles, members also have reported more time spent teaching soft skills. “We are more open-minded to the skill level of a new employee. We are having to teach more life skills as well as basic skills like tool recognition.”
One member said, “We hire with the idea that we will train all our employees to become skilled wood floor mechanics. All our wood floor mechanics right now started out with
us as helpers.”
Another said it’s time the industry partners with other organizations to promote trade schools and other related avenues.
Demand for Longer, Wider Boards in Natural Colors Increases
Trends for wood flooring products are expected to remain largely the same in 2023, including categories such as wire-brushed, reclaimed flooring, unfinished, and solid flooring. Demand for hand-scraped flooring and gray stains is expected to decrease, while demand for natural wood colors and engineered flooring is expected to increase. Reasons for the shift include:
- Grey is going away, and more natural/light colors are in demand
- The engineered flooring market is growing
- Trends are changing to cleaner, smoother, and more natural looks
Similar to more-recent years, wide planks and long boards continue to be in demand.
“Solid wood still has its place, but when you’re looking for wider and longer flooring, like people are looking for these days, engineered is more-suited for that,” Stringer said. “Also, with lumber supply, especially certain species being tight sometimes, you can stretch your lumber supply compared to solid. Raw material goes further (with engineered).”
Nearly 59 percent of respondents forecast increased demand for white oak and around 23 percent expect increased demand for red oak. Just over 30 percent of respondents expect the desire for exotic species such as santos mahogany and wenge to decrease.
Dark colors continue a downward trend as more consumers prefer a more-natural look. One respondent said of the shift, “Natural, classic colors that scream ‘real wood’ will lead the trends. They are hard to replicate in vinyl. They also lead the design trend of mixing classic and modern.”
Peter Nazarenko, president of Planet Hardwood, agreed. “There seems to be a fairly consistent prediction that the natural look of wood, as opposed to all of the pigmented stuff that dominates the market now, is going to come back into vogue.”
- “Greys were a quick fad for us, but everyone loves the lighter, natural color woods because it’s cleaner looking.”
- “White oak is in higher demand; the wood is more uniform, and natural floors are more popular.”
As demand for white oak continues to increase, Matt Wadsworth, vice president of Compass Flooring, has concerns that the continued Russia-Ukraine conflict will make European white oak harder to get due to a decrease in availability. “I’ve read the European markets are trying to keep some extra material in Europe instead of exporting it because they’re running into shortages. Manufacturers on the prefinish side are experimenting with how to make products like red oak look white. Although that really hasn’t come to market with any volume yet.”
Many members believe supply availability is responsible partly for the shifting demand, with more demand for domestic products. Some respondents also note an increase in requests for herringbone and chevron. “Herringbone and chevron are selling faster than it can be produced,” one said.
Wood-Look Products Retain Foothold
Concerns about real-wood product sales continue this year, with about 51 percent of members reporting negative impacts from wood-look products such as LVT, WPC, and laminate. Of those respondents concerned about the impacts wood-look products will have on their business, 53 percent believe the impact to stay the same and another 32 percent anticipate a worsening in the coming year.
“The price of hardwoods has gone through the roof,” said one respondent. “I primarily cater to high-end homes and upscale designers. However, I do carry some well-made, lower-cost wood flooring for young couples and people who can’t afford an $11 per square foot hardwood floor.”
Additionally, some members are concerned that the building boom may be coming to an end and increasingly higher costs to build may cause buyers to consider LVT.
Recent reports from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) support this. The NAHB recently reported that builder confidence plunged in July as high inflation and increased interest rates stalled the housing market, resulting in slowing sales and reduced buyer traffic.
“Production bottlenecks, rising home building costs, and high inflation are causing many builders to halt construction because the cost of land, construction and financing exceeds the market value of the home,” said Jerry Konter, chairman of the NAHB.
One member shared a similar sentiment. “The cost of building has risen tremendously, and many find that toward the end of the project, they are over budget. Therefore, the original real hardwood floor they hoped to install is no longer affordable.”
Conversely, 35 percent of respondents have not experienced a negative impact on real-wood product sales because of wood-look products. Those respondents believe demand for real wood remains strong, especially for high-end customers. “There will always be demand for real wood products. Architects and design engineers, along with homeowners want real wood. Synthetic products present chemical concerns, along with durability over time.”
One member said, “LVT demand is still high, but seems to be plateauing through better education and/or flaws in marketing (misinformation). Therefore, wood is benefiting again, which is good.”
Another member reported including LVT as an add-on product for basements, mud rooms, and laundry rooms. “That’s how we sell it and also educate customers in that sense, so it has not affected wood sales negatively.”
However, respondents remained split when asked if inflation impacted demand for real wood products versus wood-look or other alternatives. Nearly 37 percent think the price gap has closed and believe customers are considering real wood over wood-look products more frequently, with another 33 percent seeing no real change due to inflation.
One respondent thinks it’s too early to tell inflation’s impact on demand and said, “Not yet, but inflation may play into this answer in the next year or so.”
Forty-two percent of contractors in the survey reported a significant gain in sales of wood flooring installations in 2021, with 27 percent reporting a moderate gain. Reports of increases were due to increased demand and price increases. Only 15 percent of contractors said that sales were roughly the same as the prior year.
Looking ahead to 2023, half of the contractors believe that wood flooring sales will remain the same. Some contractors remain optimistic, with 21 percent expecting significant sales growth in 2023. Reasons include:
- Wood remaining dominant
- Replacement of LVT products
- Future strength in contracts
Almost all contractors installed wood flooring purchased from wood flooring distributors in 2021. While an additional 50 percent reported installing wood purchased directly from the manufacturer. Flooring that was purchased and supplied by the client fell from 35 percent in 2020 to 24 percent in 2021.
Plainsawn flooring continues to dominate the market, growing from 83 percent in 2019 to 90 percent in 2021, with nail-down over wood subfloors continuing to be the most-common installation method. Water-based finishes (73 percent) and natural colors (56 percent) were the most-common in their respective categories.
When asked about potential supply shortages or disruption, one contactor said: “You can get some products, but the pricing is double or triple, and you have to order them from places you never thought you could get those products.”
Almost all contractors (86 percent) said they are experiencing some sort of supply chain disruption. To mitigate supply chain disruption, 56 percent of contractors said they will source from other suppliers, and 36 percent said they would add new suppliers for specific projects.
Along with supply chain disruption, most contractors report problems finding adequate labor. While they are seeing labor issues across all positions, installers, sanders, and finishers were some of the most-difficult positions to fill.
More than half of contractors reported success in using referrals when finding labor. Other ways to find labor included classifieds/online postings (31 percent) and through-channel partners (31 percent).
One contractor said they have had to be “more open-minded to the skill level of a new employee. We are having to teach more life skills and basic skills such as tool recognition.”
Forty-three percent of contractors reported that COVID-19 continues to affect staffing and the ability to work inside customers’ homes. Other related concerns:
- Wariness about CDC guidelines being followed
- Disruption in schedule due to client or employee testing positive
Another challenge cited by contractors was price: More than half said that was the largest hurdle when selling wood flooring.
Educating homeowners about wood flooring continues to grow as 94 percent of contractors reported that they proactively provide leave-behind information or discuss proper maintenance for wood flooring, up from 85 percent last year. Common education materials included:
- Maintenance/Care Guide
- Manufacturer Guide
- Cleaning Kits
Sixty-eight percent proactively supply their customers with cleaning products after completing the job.
Contractors are looking for continued support from NWFA in growing their businesses in this uncertain market. Michael Mann, the owner of Floorcraft Design, said: “The focus on new technologies and training is good for the bottom two-thirds of the company. The top third, the owners and operators, have no resources to become a better wood flooring company. I know how to do a lot, but I don’t know how to manage employees or inventory. I don’t know how to get data from the point of sale to the end of the project.”
About 53 percent of distributors reported company sales of wood flooring in 2021 were up significantly (eight percent or more), compared to 2020.
An additional 35 percent of distributors reported a moderate increase in sales growth (three percent to seven percent) for wood flooring. Reasons for the increase included:
- Larger demand due to the hot housing market
- Increased product offerings
- Switch to alternative materials for multi-housing and remodeling
- Price increases on products that resulted in higher sales numbers
Looking ahead, 29 percent of distributors remain optimistic, forecasting a significant increase for 2022 sales (eight percent or more), with another 29 percent anticipating moderate gains. Nearly 18 percent expect sales to remain the same.
One distributor said, “First half of the year sales are up, but I anticipate a slowdown the second half of the year. Traffic and order volume has already decreased.”
Some distributors believe much of the sales gains in 2021 were inflationary and anticipate a softening in the market. “I expect business to return to a normal level,” said Matt Wadsworth, vice president of Compass Flooring. “The past two years were abnormal. I never have seen it before in my life. I probably won’t ever see it again. You’re never going to see people stuck in their homes with nothing to do but renovate.”
About two-thirds of distributors forecast sales to stay the same in 2023, with another 18 percent expecting a moderate decline of three percent to seven percent.
Inflation, continued supply chain disruptions, concerns over a slowing economy, and a possible recession are top of mind for many distributors. One member said: “Inflation, increase in gas prices, increase in shipping costs, and interruption in the supply chain will cause stagnation in remodels and new builds. It will take at least two to three years to get just the freight situation back to a somewhat normal level.”
An overwhelming 88 percent of distributors say the biggest concern on their minds going into 2023 is the economy, followed by worries about inflation (71 percent). Other top concerns include:
- Political climate
- Potential housing bubble
- Supply chain disruption
- Labor shortage
- Manufacturers selling direct
“2023 will be a challenge for all building-related products as the economy adjusts to the frantic buying nature during 2021 and 2022. The recession is here whether we like it or not. You cannot print trillions of dollars with no regard for the implications,” said one distributor in the survey.
The top opportunities for distributors going into the second half of 2022 and into 2023 are product diversification (59 percent), followed by geographic expansion (47 percent), and improvement to operations (47 percent).
Other plans distributors shared included increased offering of value-added services and plans to implement e-commerce.
Distributors shared other plans for competitive growth, including expansion by acquisition, expanded product and service offerings, more face-to-face interactions, and selecting vendors with more-reliable supply. One distributor said: “I’m trying to keep inventory stocked on items that continue to see price increases and trying to minimize stock to just-in-time on items like red oak strip due to falling costs.”
Distributors continue to struggle with supply constraints and extended lead times on items including:
- Engineered flooring
- Raw materials
“Every manufacturer has had raw material supply issues during 2021 and 2022. Glue, finish, and tools still are adapting to those challenges and most likely will through the second quarter of 2023,” a respondent said.
Another said: “The supply chain is improving, but inventory has skyrocketed as a result. I think distribution will go from not enough inventory to too much.”
Training customers on the products they sell remains important to distributors, with 23 percent of respondents hosting schools every year. Forty-one percent of distributor members have hosted and plan to host schools in the future. Almost 27 percent of training offered by distributor members is training through NWFA.
Sixty-nine percent of distributors surveyed reported an increase in installation-related claims, followed by moisture claims (44 percent), environmental claims (38 percent), and customer expectation claims (38 percent).
“I think the industry did itself a disservice on how they called everything waterproof going back five or six years,” said a distributor. “The reality, after millions of square feet of this stuff has been installed, is that it’s not waterproof against moisture that comes from below, the hydrostatic pressure coming out of the subfloor.”
They added: “Claims on things, either the way it was sold to them or the way they sold it to the consumer, and hadn’t performed the way they anticipated. With wood flooring, the claims have been very steady because wood flooring has been out forever, and people know exactly how it performs, but also know the cautions they need to have.”
Some distributors believe proper education can reduce the frequency of claims. One distributor believes lack of consumer knowledge is a contributing factor as more buyers go online looking for flooring options. “They don’t know the right questions to ask to avoid problem installations or material failure.”
One distributor recommends educating consumers on several key attributes that include the following:
- What are the moisture levels at the site?
- What are the relative humidity levels?
- Will a qualified flooring contractor be installing the flooring?
- Will the flooring contractor be taking moisture readings?
- Will the flooring products be tested prior to installation?
For more than half of the manufacturers in the survey, sales increased significantly in 2021 compared to 2020. And nearly 19 percent of manufacturers reported that sales were up somewhat (three percent to seven percent).
Price increases have been significant this year. Eighty-two percent of manufacturers said raw-material costs have increased in 2022, with more than half of respondents anticipating those to continue into 2023.
About half of manufacturers surveyed said their pricing had increased significantly (eight percent or more), and nearly 30 percent said their prices had increased somewhat (three percent to seven percent). The reason for these increases varies, with many respondents reporting that higher raw material costs, labor shortages, and inflation are playing a role in price changes.
“Like the industry as a whole, we have had our price increases, as well. With this inflationary economy, everything’s under price pressure,” said Paul Stringer, president and CEO of Somerset Hardwood Flooring. “If we have a recession, and many feel we are in one now, and interest rates go up even more, one of the problems you have is that flooring is one of the last things you choose and/or install. I have seen $500,000 homes install cabin grade because the homeowner had run out of money. That can be problematic in flooring sales.”
Looking forward, many manufacturers are optimistic that sales will grow in the second half of 2022 and into 2023. In 2023, nearly half of manufacturers are hopeful sales will continue growing, while 20 percent anticipate they will stay the same. However, a third of respondents believe sales will drop in 2023.
One problem many manufacturers continue to face is supply chain disruption. Seventy-seven percent of respondents reported experiencing extended lead times or unpredictable supply. Most manufacturers said they are experiencing problems sourcing hardwood and engineered flooring. Many also are struggling to find packaging and accessories needed for transportation.
The top reasons for supply chain disruption include labor shortages, freight disruption, a sudden increase in demand, and production-facility shutdowns or scalebacks. More than 40 percent of respondents said they plan to source from new suppliers and improve communication with existing ones to combat setbacks. Others said they would try switching to domestic alternatives to offset high import times and tariffs. Ordering earlier than usual to maintain strong inventory levels is another strategy some manufacturers plan to employ.
The top opportunities for manufacturers in the second half of 2022 and into 2023 include:
- Improvements to operations
- Product diversification
- New distribution channels
- Geographic expansion
- Value-added services
Demand for wood-look products, especially LVT, is a concern for many manufacturers, with 52 percent reporting that the competition of wood alternatives has hurt their business. Respondents say the increase in demand for wood-look products results from lower prices, greater availability, and claims of plastic alternatives being “waterproof.”
More than half of respondents believe this competition will grow, while 37 percent do not believe it will have a long-term effect. However, manufacturers are hopeful that the longevity and quality of wood will continue to draw demand from environmentally conscious customers who want to invest in their homes and businesses.
“I’ve never seen anybody advertise LVT throughout their home,” Stringer said, “but you always see ‘wood floors throughout.’ There’s a reason for that – because it raises the value of the home. I think wood always will have its place in homes, not only for its added value, but as a natural choice for its unique appearance and feel.”
The majority of manufacturers, 77 percent, said they have struggled to find skilled labor this year. Warehouse workers, line workers, general laborers, and drivers are all in high demand. As a result, most manufacturers are relying on referrals, classifieds, online job listings, and social media to attract new talent. Many also are being more competitive with wages, with one respondent saying, “We have had to raise our starting pay and all of our pay rates.”
Going into 2023, NWFA manufacturers are worried about:
- The economy
- Supply chain challenges
- Labor shortage
- Political climate
- Potential housing bubble collapse
To be more competitive in the second half of 2022 and into 2023, manufacturers plan to improve processes to become more-efficient, add new product categories, lines, or services, and invest more-heavily in technology.
Around 45 percent of retailers surveyed reported sales of wood flooring were up significantly (more than eight percent) in 2021 compared with 2020. About 36 percent reported sales were up somewhat, and nearly five percent reported sales were about the same.
Halfway through 2022, about 50 percent of respondents expect full-year revenues to be up, and 27 percent expect revenues to be about the same.
Looking to 2023, retailers were only slightly less optimistic. Forty-five percent of retailers expect sales of wood flooring to be about the same next year as this year. Nearly 44 percent expect sales to be up.
Going into the second half of 2022 and 2023, retailers see their top opportunities in:
- Improvements to operations
- Product diversification
- Value-added services
- End-market diversification
- Geographic expansion
NWFA retailers report that their top concerns going into 2023 are the economy, the labor shortage, the potential housing bubble collapse, inflation, and the political climate.
About 59 percent of retailers report that wood-look products such as LVT, WPC, and laminate have had a negative effect on their real-wood product sales.
“More people want wooden floors, and many don’t see the difference between a wood-look product and a real wood floor,” one retailer said. “All they see is the savings.”
Another retailer said: “I want to be able to provide quality products that people can afford. So, I carry the better-quality luxury waterproof flooring. Clients I had 15 years ago are referring their kids who have purchased their first homes. As a mom, I want to take care of these people. I don’t want them getting flooring they will need to replace in five years. While selling the non-wood products is not as profitable as selling real hardwoods, it’s better than letting someone else get that sale.”
Peter Nazarenko, president of Planet Hardwood, said wood flooring is still the universal signature of quality. “The old saying goes, nobody peels up carpet and gets excited about finding vinyl. A very common practice, especially in older markets like Boston or New York, is you peel up carpet and find beautiful ancient wood floors underneath.”
Nearly all retailer respondents said they are experiencing supply chain disruption. Respondents reported experiencing extended lead times or unpredictable supply.
“It’s tough,” Glynn Nickerson, owner of Advanced Wood Floors, said. “For instance, I have a job that’s supposed to start the first of August. We were told material would be here the middle of June or July, now we’re being told it may be the end of August – if we can even get it.”
“We have customers come in and pick a floor, but they want to take it home,” Nickerson said. “They bring it back a couple of days later, and it’s not available anymore. If they don’t make a decision right there, they stand a chance of not getting the product.”
To mitigate supply chain disruption, retailers said they are adding new suppliers for certain products, improving communication with suppliers, sourcing from other suppliers, focusing on North American suppliers, and training employees on product substitutes.
Most retailers in the survey said they are having problems finding adequate skilled labor this year. Only a third said they aren’t. Retailers’ strategies for finding labor include referrals, channel partners, social media, and classifieds/online job postings.
Economic Uncertainty Lingers
Some members suggest that increased sales growth data doesn’t paint the whole picture of what’s happening today – and what’s to come. Some say much of the growth they’ve seen is due to rising prices that ultimately must be passed on to the customer.
“With supply chain issues, as well as supply and demand from last year, prices have gone up continuously,” one respondent said. “Gas is costing more to run the operations, not to mention the maintenance of trucks, and more abuse on them. Electric costs are up. We’re trying to help our customers as well, but we’re not a not-for-profit business.”
Another expressed concerns about the looming potential of a recession that could ultimately help alleviate supply chain challenges. “The housing market’s going to fall, which we’ve seen already, and the cost of material, the cost of labor, and the cost of everything continuing to rise. It just is not somewhere where a business our size wants to go. I’d rather stay very busy and have a small amount of supply chain issues than have the material we need and be in a recession.”
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Leah Bodenhamer, Shannon Gayton, Kyle Toruta, and Lauren White are part of the team at 3 Aspens Media. They conducted this online survey of NWFA members and Hardwood Floors magazine readers, analyzed results, and produced this report. Contact email@example.com with questions.