Draperies & Windows Coverings asked some of the industry's leading manufacturers where the wood and wood-look-alike products category is headed, what affect it has had on other products and even what environmental concerns consumers may have regarding the use of wood.
The hottest category right now is two-inch horizontal products. "The two-inch wood blind market is, and will continue to be, mature and price competitive," notes Kevin Armstrong, director of sales and marketing of wood products for Hunter Douglas Window Fashions, which recently released Country Woods® Reflections[TM] with a 2 5/8-inch beveled-edge wood slat.
What's more, the strength of this market has yet to peak. "Demand will still be strong over the next five years," says Kerry Blalock, of Bamboo Abbott Florida, which produces wood blinds, woven wood shades and vinyl-clad wood shutters.
"We see continued growth within the two-inch category," agrees Craig Robinson, vice president of sales for Gilmore Enterprises, which offers a slat program of engineered Realwood[TM] substrate. "I would look for innovation through refinements within the wood market as manufacturers look for points of separation," he adds.
"There is still a great deal of life left in the wood blind market," says Tim Secker, director sales and marketing, American Hardwood Co. (AHC), which manufacturers wood blind and shutter components for fabricators worldwide. "Industry experts predict the product lifecycle bell curve will reach its peak in late 2003, but there will always be a market for natural wood products. Wood products fill the need of the current consumer who is being categorized as 'neo traditional.' That simply means they are now in the market for style. Nothing meets that need better than wood blinds and shutters."
In terms of finishes, the market seems to moving away from paint in favor of stains. Hunter Douglas' Armstrong believes the market is evenly divided, while Gary LaDue, assistant product manager at Comfortex Window Fashions, says a breakout of 60 percent painted and 40 percent stained finishes still holds. "But the color mix percentages vary greatly depending on the region," LaDue adds.
The rest of the market leans toward stains. "We are seeing a definite trend toward stains," says AHC's Secker "The consumer is feeling safer with the natural look and is finding many more options away from the window that incorporate the natural look and coordinate well with the timeless aspect of wood products," he adds.
"It is interesting to note that in Europe the mix of product is 95 percent stains. They can't understand why we would want a wood blind to look like anything other than a wood blind!" Secker says. "That trend is now working its way to our side of the 'pond'."
That sentiment is echoed by Vince Rasmussen, owner of Caldwell/VSR, Inc. which offers "every type" of wood slat. "In Europe this has always been the case, you see very little painted slats used. The consumer wants everyone to know that they have real wood product on their windows," he says.
"There is a call for stained wood," says Andrea Miritello, vice president of Tentina Window Fashions, which offers a full line of Hunter Douglas wood products. She adds that the trend is strong enough to effect other products, "Stains have even been added to faux wood lines."
Bamboo Abbott's Blalock concurrs: "The demand for stain has increased. Faux woods are following the trend with more stain colors."
HAND IN HAND
The increase in the popularity of horizontal wood products has had a positive effect on other products such as extruded and composite blinds and wood shutters. This popularity turns out to be a two-way street. "The growth in wood blinds has drawn more attention to all wood products, and therefore shutters have had more exposure and continue to gain popularity," says Comfortex's LaDue.
"One of the significant contributions to the wood blind craze was the shutter look in the early part of the '90s," says Secker. "The cost was high, so a great alternative was wood blinds. It appears that wood blinds have now returned the favor. The wood look has introduced many consumers to shutters and pricing pressures have diminished the gap between the two just enough to allow many to trade up."
"If anything, both products have benefited from the awareness of each other's practicality as a horizontal light control. Various technologies have created new types of products, more efficient manufacturing, and more opportunities. Both markets are continuing to mature," says Robinson.
Still, important differences between product lines remain. "Wood blind and shutter products offer their own unique features and benefits," Armstrong explains. "The shutter provides beautiful architectural form to the window, but with more structure and an increased room darkening effect during daylight hours. The wood blind offers a simpler look that allows for a brighter room during the daylight hours."
These differences have led to the creation of a new product category that tries to combine the benefits of both blinds and shutters. Thomas Radd, director of marketing and sales at C & M Wood Industries, Inc. says his company's three-inch Plantation Blind was intended to fill that gap. "It has all the characteristics as the shutter," he says. "The three-inch Plantation Wood Blind is easier to install, it does not require the carpentry work associated with traditional shutters. In addition, it offers greater visibility in that the louvers can be longer than the standard shutter louver and do not have the visual impediments of the frames, stiles and rails."
Comfortex has created the wood alloy Plantation Shutter Blinds[TM] and Gilmore the CountryView[TM] 2 1/2-inch Shutter Blind, which Robinson says "is poised to better emulate the visual appeal of a shutter without detracting from the popularity of the wood blind's practicality."
By all accounts the faux wood market remains strong, although there is disagreement as to how long it will last. Manufacturers of wood-only products such a American Hardwood see faux products with a more limited lifecycle. Others see the growth continuing. "There is and will continue to be a market for faux woods not only because of price, but they also can be used in places where a consumer wants a wood blind look but where wood would be impractical," says Miritello.
Yet Miritello would agree that, with the market so strong, all products benefit. "Faux wood was not developed to replace real wood, but to expand the market for wood," she says.
"It is estimated that today greater than 50 percent of two-inch custom blind sales in the United States are faux wood or composite based," says Robinson. "I think it is important to understand that the 'faux woods' and extruded foam blinds have made two-inch blinds more affordable, therefore more popular. Fifteen years ago, wood blinds were sold primarily to the affluent. The price pressures from these alternative slat materials demanded traditional wood slat suppliers react and embrace new technologies to reduce their costs."
"Faux wood product has expanded the customer base for those who wanted the look that two-inch wood gives, but would not pay the price. Each product has its unique features," says Blalock.
Even wood-only manufacturers understand faux wood's attraction. "I do not think we can put our heads in the sand and believe that faux woods will go away," says Rasmussen. "In the long term, I think faux programs can bring new consumers into the wood blind category."
It may come down to basics: supplying quality products. "The strong companies with quality products will continue to thrive and prosper, and weaker companies with less quality or cheaply made faux wood products will disappear," LaDue predicts.
Manufacturers of alloy, composite and extruded products like to point out that their products are environmentally friendly because they don't use wood. Wood product manufacturers counter by saying wood is plentiful from sustained sources that do not deplete the world's forests.
Perhaps the hardest question to get a handle on is how important to consumers is using real wood as opposed to manufactured products. Denise Schenck, marketing manager at Lafayette Venetian Blinds, which produces a full line of wood shutters and blinds, believes consumers are "not at all" concerned about the origin of wood used. Blalock agrees, "I don't think there is much concern on the origin of the wood." He notes that Bamboo Abbott produces ramin wood blinds and bamboo woven woods.
But others, such as Hunter Douglas' Armstrong, note "There is a growing concern regarding the environmental impact of all wood harvesting, regardless of geographic region or species. We want to contribute toward responsible management of resources," he continues. "We are reviewing the means to realistically track certified wood lots from forest to lumber mill to slat molder to slat finisher to manufacturer."
At Caldwell/VSR, which produces wood slats of every type of wood including oak, maple and cherry, there is an attempt to stay ahead of consumer concerns. "As the consumer becomes more aware of the environmental issues facing some of these species, it forces us, and rightfully so, to look for other alternatives that address this," says Rasmussen. "We are currently developing forest certification policies similar in scope to programs such as the Forest Service Council and others. These managed forest programs are very complicated and are long-term in nature. I do not think the majority of consumers fully understand this today. We want to be ahead of them in this very sensitive arena and plan to provide products that have and will be certified," he says.
Sandy Gray, president of American Hardwood, notes that important differences need to be understood even between specific wood species. "Most consumers today have some degree of interest in where their products come from and their effects on the environment," he says. "Basswood and ramin are the two primary species used for wood blinds. Basswood grows in northern, deciduous forests, whereas ramin grows in the tropical regions of Asia. According to the U.S. Forest Service, basswood is growing in the United States at a rate of three times the harvesting rate. Ramin, on the other hand, is primarily coming from Indonesia, which is struggling to diminish the continuing decimation of their rain forests. Clearly there are some very important environmental differences between basswood and ramin, which given the opportunity, most consumers would want to know."
In the end, the consumer will have the biggest impact on where the wood and wood-like product category is headed. As Gilmore's Robinson points out, a direction is hard to predict. "We've milled, extruded, embossed, distressed, streaked, wrapped, coated, and now shaped it. We've made wood look like plastic and plastic look like wood. What's next?"