Compositology News
Put Composite Deck Innovations To The Test
6 years, 2 months ago Posted in: Compositology News 1

By: Shane O’Neill

SOURCE: The Merchant Magazine, May 2011 Issue – DOWNLOAD HERE

Over the last few years, there has been a flurry of activity within the composite decking market. Many of the products prevalent in the market 15 years ago are not even available any more or, at the very least, are called something completely different.

In some ways, this is a good thing. There were a lot of growing pains in the development of composite decking, and several manufacturers paid the price for using customers as field testers. But has everyone learned their lesson from the past? How do the practices of your composite decking vendors affect you, the dealers and distributors? Let’s face it: people like new things. If you look at anything Apple makes, you will see the power of marketing “new.” However, in the arena of building products selling new can be a two-sided coin. On one side, there’s the selling power of new, which everyone loves. During the honeymoon phase, all of the things your sales reps told you are true. There’s no reason to question what they’re saying. Product is selling, inventory is moving, and you are making a nice margin on a value-added product.

The flip side of that coin, however, is not so good. After an innovative product has been out for a year or two, issues may arise. The magnitude and scale of these issues often are completely out of your control, and resolution hinges on how well your vendors did their homework.

Just like all manufacturers, composite decking vendors balance the costs of bringing their product to market with the value that product provides. During a product’s life cycle, most companies work to improve the its shortcomings. These refinements may be nearly invisible at the consumer level (updated additive systems to increase long-term durability, improved color packages to increase resistance to fading), but address concerns observed in the field.  Depending on the nature of the refinement, it may or may not be applied to their current product line. The time and cost of recertification is usually prohibitive on a current product, but can be justified with the launch of a new product.  Therefore, most refinements are bundled with other visible improvements (such as new color palettes, different texture and grain patterns, or improved surface treatments) and the marketed new product is now the “innovation.”

In a perfect world, manufacturers will constantly search for ways to improve their product to create the best possible product. In reality, most improvements are more self-serving.  If a manufacturer can notably improve its product (i.e., attributes that can be easily disseminated by the consumer), the marketing department will wrap that improvement up in new product names and lines and leverage it into a price increase. With the launch of an “innovative” product, the manufacturer will now have to refill the distribution pipeline with inventory. The producer will do 70%+ of its sales in a year just “filling the pipe,” with only a portion of those sales actually being installed the first year. And, dealers have old product is more than likely now obsolete and a new product with potentially limited real-world exposure.

When composite decking first became mainstream, it often went by the name “wood-plastic composites” or WPCs. This was because nearly everyone had the same thing—waste sawdust was mixed with some sort of waste plastic (typically milk jugs or grocery bags)—and what came out was this blue-gray plank that was sort of flat, sort of square, and was the “innovation” to replace treated wood decking. The sales reps told you about its resistance to moisture and rot, absence of splinters or toxic chemicals, that you “don’t have to clean it,” that it was dimensionally stable and would last forever. It even had a warranty.

After this first generation of composites was out in the field for a few years, you began to hear about “issues.” There were varying degrees of color loss, food stains, easily scratched and marred surfaces, mold, fungus, expansion and contraction issues due to temperature, planks twisting and swelling from moisture, and even cases where boards decayed and turned to dust. Affected manufacturers took their licks, dealt with warranty claims and class action lawsuits, and ultimately, the products were greatly improved. Those that didn’t do so just walked away.

This left a lot of dealers and distributors in a tough spot: you have a personal relationship with your community. You aren’t selling a product inside a vacuum. You need to maintain a great relationship with the contractors and homeowners you know. They keep you in business and allow you to pay the bills. When a manufacturer has a product failure that leaves you in the lurch, any profit you may have had in that sale is lost in the cost of maintaining that customer relationship the best you can.

Four years ago, the hot innovation in alternative decking was cellular PVC. It was the solution to all the past problems with WPCs. The sales reps explained to you how this innovative product wouldn’t fade, stain, scratch or mar, and was impervious to water and truly ultra-low maintenance — basically, the perfect product. Well, after selling a few million linear feet of cellular PVC decking to homeowners and contractors, some people had problems: staining from bug spray and suntan lotion, reactions with rubber and other plastics causing discoloration, permanent material shrinkage, and surface chalking. Again, the manufacturers went to work developing refinements.

Now, the hot trend is capstock products: an additive and pigment rich resin coating on the outside of a composite board. Most of the major composite decking producers have introduced a capstock line, promising:

“Exceptional resistance to fading and water damage”
“Practically impossible to stain”
“Requires very little upkeep”
“Practically impervious to the elements and everyday accidents”
“Engineered to resist fading, scratches and stains”
“Resists everything but stares”

Sound familiar? What can you do to find out if history will repeat itself again? Expect more from the manufacturers and sales reps. When they walk in your door to sell you the newest innovation, there should be a higher expectation than doughnuts or a free lunch. Be ready to ask them some simple questions to decide if the newest innovation is what you want to sell:

“What testing have you done?”

How are they able to claim the product performs as their literature suggests? Do they have any sort of data or does everything look like a marketing campaign, with check marks and catch phrases? If there are no numbers to explain their results, ask them to provide the numbers. Do they really know the product beyond the literature? Remember, this is the person you are going to call on if there is a problem in the future.

“If there is testing, who did the testing?”

Was the testing done by a third-party (someone outside the company) or someone inside? Internal testing is a valuable tool for a company while developing a product, but at some point, there must be validation of the results by an outside source. It helps to keep things honest, and adds merit to the internal work done by the company.  Some of this is validated during the code testing process.  However, the code is focused only on the mechanical performance of the decking. It evaluates a minimum performance level for a product and establishes a joist span and stair tread rating. There is no validation of long-term durability, surface performance, or resistance to the elements.

“How does your competition perform in comparison?”

If they don’t know what the competition does, how do they know they have the best product?

“What field testing or accelerated tests has this been through?”

It takes time for issues to show up in the real world. It’s why field testing or accelerated tests are vital to draw out issues before you have to deal with them at your customer’s home. After you meet the various decking reps and compile a short list of products you feel comfortable with carrying, how do you decide which one is the right one? Evaluate the market and bring in your best contractors and homeowners to gauge their response and interest.

Then consider a technical evaluation. Not only does it provide a second opinion on products you’re considering, but it also provides a unique marketing tool to persuade customers to buy from you. The cost of the evaluation can be marginal compared with the capital investment in a new line. If a manufacturer is serious about wanting your business, see if they will cover or offset the cost as part of the deal.

“You have the newest innovation, now what about the old stuff?

While the manufacturer makes their money as each truck leaves the factory, you don’t make yours until the last boards are sold. If you still have partial bundles from last season, have you made your profit yet? What is the manufacturer doing for you? Are they requiring a minimal commitment of $250,000+ and forcing you to carry all product colors? Is there a buyback of unused product that will be obsolete the minute the new stuff shows up? Vendor-managed inventory program? Are they working to be a partner with you into the future, or are they just looking to move some units in the short haul?

It’s important to look at this process as an investment.  Composite decking is a value-added product, not a commodity.  Invest in products and companies that have instilled confidence in what they do. Companies should know their product and have scientific data to back up their claims. They should provide confident, competent personnel who can address questions and concerns when they arise from your customers.

The selling of value-added lines also requires your staff to be familiar with the products, explain their strengths and weaknesses, and provide installation tips and techniques to your contractors. Before new products arrive, develop the means to either effectively sell your entire inventory or negotiate a vendor-based option. Ultimately, you are the one who will be left holding the bag, so do the research to protect yourself and your relationship with your customers.

Shane O’Neill is founder and chief technology officer of Compositology LLC, a marketing and technical support consulting company for the composite materials industry. Reach him at (763) 567-0097 or shane@compositology.com.

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One Response

  1. […] Put Composite Deck Innovations To The Test (compositology.com) 05/05/2011 […]

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