The hardwood floor industry entered the new millennium requiring just a little assistance from industry leaders to unlock its tremendous potential. The winter of 2000 brought about modest increases in shipments of unfinished hardwood flooring, according to the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association. Based upon the record (see chart), prosperity seems inevitable for the remainder of 2001.

The only foreboding statistic, a premature cool down in shipment volume, appeared in the September 2000 report released by NOFMA. Additionally, unfinished red oak hardwood flooring began to once again experience upward pricing pressure. White oak, on the other hand, continued to show signs of stability, as most manufacturers resolved to build massive inventories.

The difference between the current pricing environment and that of less than three years ago is that, today, there continue to be unmistakable signs of a steady, consistent slowdown in new-home construction. Lumberyards have begun to accrue large surpluses of construction building materials. It would appear, then, that recent price hikes are somewhat incongruent with the slackening near-term outlook facing the construction industry.

The possibility of a supply shortage became a reality by midsummer 2000. Unfinished hardwood flooring began its cyclical escalation in price, the prefinished-hardwood segment, as it had previously, showed more restraint in terms of pricing increases, and unfinished-hardwood shipments began to once again increase.

The reasons for the shortages were a mystery to the majority of unfinished-hardwood flooring distributors. But it doesn't take a financial wizard to realize that a softer market that creates potential for product stockpiling can also result in price increases, due to the resulting raw materials shortages.

In reality, unfinished wood flooring manufacturers had been approached by their internal industry competition — the prefinished-flooring manufacturers. The dramatic influence of deep-pocketed prefinished-flooring manufacturers was the first step in creating the shortages. As a result, the price of unfinished strip products began to escalate. Exacerbating this development was a strategic decision on the part of several unfinished-flooring manufacturers to establish production and a presence in the prefinished market.

If demand for prefinished flooring is indeed on the rise, and steady growth in unfinished flooring continues, the industry will be ideally positioned in the marketplace when economic forces swing the emphasis from new residential construction to remodel and replacement — a change that many see on the horizon.

Without question, the volume leader in prefinished flooring products manufacturing continues to be Triangle Pacific. Many observers view the recent bankruptcy filing of Armstrong World Industries, Tri Pac’s parent company, as a plus for both investors and Armstrong subsidiaries. The ultimate effects of former Armstrong CEO Floyd Sherman’s decision to step down remain to be seen. One thing is certain: the increasingly aggressive moves on the part of prefinished-hardwood floor manufacturers should eventually increase the market share of this product category, if for no other reason than market saturation.

I believe 2001 will show continued growth in the hardwood flooring industry. But that growth will flow along a different trajectory than that of previous boom years.

The current uncertain outlook for our economy should be come clearer now that the presidential election is behind us and the stock market has begun to exhibit more stability. With increasing signs of moderate growth, and additional cuts in interest rates, consumer confidence should improve. From the standpoint of our industry, if we are to continue our record of growth, the days of order taking will need to be supplanted by a defined marketing strategy allowing us to command our share of the consumer’s disposable income.

New residential construction will continue undiminished in the nation’s Northeast corridor, as well as on the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest. The Sunbelt will see building activity decrease ever so slightly to give the industry an opportunity to catch up with the overhang in demand. The Midwest will see the most dramatic slowdown in construction, particularly at the entry and mid-range levels. Upscale housing starts will virtually disappear from the radar screen. Therefore, local market conditions will dictate the ultimate impact on the bottom line of each dealer/contractor.

You really never appreciate anything until you have to fight for it. For us, the floor covering market is the center ring. Just be sure you’re ready when the bell sounds.