Showroom Seminar: Stocking and Selling Handcrafted Tiles
September 2nd, 2008

September-October 2008

By Zoe Voigt

For hundreds—even thousands—of years, tiles were made individually, by hand. Now, they are the exception and are known by many names—art tiles, handmade tiles, artisian tiles and handcrafted tiles.

Artisian tiles have a richness and a patina that make them each unique. As with works of art, these tiles have been touched by a human hand. “People like the earthiness of the tile. It is an appealing part of the American psyche,” says Josh Blanc, president of the Handcrafted Tile Association. “Tile is very creative, there are so many variations, from modern to arts and crafts, to decorative. You don’t get that range with other materials.

“Our association is striving to bring back this art form to being part of our culture the way it was 200 years ago. Builders don’t really think to use art tile, but there isn’t any reason why not. Handcrafted tile doesn’t have to be colorful and have a chicken on it. Handmade tiles can be modern too,” says Blanc, who is also a tile artist.

Blanc’s organization produces maps, resource guides and directories of tile artists in the upper Midwestern U.S. “There is a history of tile here, there are historic tile artists and also contemporary tile artists.”

“To me there is an element to handmade tiles that is richer and more exquisite. You can tell that someone touched it,” says Nina Long of Wholesale Tile and Accessories in Tampa. Long has been selling handmade tile for 27 years.

Sunny McLean, of Sunny McLean & Company in Miami, is a consultant to the tile and stone industry. She says, “With handmade tiles, there are so many options. That’s what makes it appealing to people, because they can get what they want, and they can be part of the design process. It is exciting. It is fun. They can do their color combinations. They can make it frilly they can also play with the budget by how much more they put in with it.”


Handmade tiles are very appealing, but stocking and selling them can present some challenges. If you have been selling mass-produced tile exclusively, there may be a bit of a learning curve.

Depending on your point of view, the irregularity of handmade tile can either be a positive or a negative. Some customers appreciate the look of machine made, perfectly smooth, rectified tile. Those who prefer highly technical porcelain might not like handmade tiles. Others enjoy the imperfections and irregularities that characterize most handcrafted tile and consider the production of these tiles to be an art form.


According to Bill Buyok of Avente Tiles in Los Angeles, “The hard thing about stocking handcrafted tile is that there is so much variety and so many different designs. Stocking all of them is not feasible. If you have too many, some of them don’t move.

“The trick is to find the balance,” says Buyok. “If you have samples of three designs, maybe you just stock one of them. That is unless having hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory isn’t a problem. Otherwise, just have sample stock of everything. Your special orders will need some time, about six to eight weeks. Be careful though, you’ll lose some of your residential jobs if you don’t stock anything at all. Some people expect and want everything right now, although most people are happy to wait one to two weeks.”

“If you are not stocking,” says Long, “You are going to lose the short-term jobs. Some people need stuff right away and they can’t wait for it. Everyone has customers like that. Realistically though, you need at least three weeks for handmade tiles. You need time to order. Handmade tiles are more expensive, so you may only stock a few.”

McLean says, “Not all the handmade tile companies offer stocking programs, but those that do, they are usually very edited. So if you are thinking of stocking something handmade, stock it in white. Forget about the colors. Stock it in white, because if you look at your sales histories, what you will see is that more than anything else, is what people buy. If they insist that they want some color in it, you can order it. You can get the job going and by the time they are ready for it, you’ll probably have the couple of pieces of whatever you need of that color.

“It is awfully hard to stock all the different trim pieces, in corners, out corners, frame corners, stop ends, in all of those colors.

It is a very difficult stocking situation. My personal opinion is that if you are going to stock handmade, you stock it in a very bread and butter line. Something you know you can sell over and over again and keep it manageable. If the sales associates are focused on that, they will sell it over and over again and you will get a return on your investment.

“If your customer wants a particular color and molding, they will have to order it,” says McLean. “Eight weeks is not a long time. Try ordering a chair. Eight weeks is short.”

“If a line is doing well, use science to determine the set minimum inventory level,” says Buyok. “Historically, whichever one sells best. Just do the math—it is better than throwing darts—and keep that stocking level. Part of the business is taking chances.”

According to Long, “One issue to keep in mind is that once in a while glazes will differ from lot to lot. If you have a nice inventory, you can always supply the same thing. You should have enough stock so you can sample your customers and still have enough tile to fill orders.”


“It is a bad thing, though, when a customer comes back with a sample from four years ago, and it doesn’t look like your current inventory anymore. Sometimes it doesn’t change at all, but other times, it might be different,” says Long.

“The artist might not realize that the pigments or glazes that they use to color the tile may have changed over time, or they might not still be able to get their clay or pigments from the same supplier,” says Long. “Big tile factories have these problems too. They are just on a grander scale.”

McLean says, “I always advise to never use the word ‘match’ when talking about glaze color or finish for obvious reasons. Words are very powerful and if you say you’re going to ‘match’ something, isn’t it natural that your customer takes you literally and expects an exact match? A red flag goes up when I see a customer putting little swatches next to tiles. It is not going to work that way.

“You have to feel comfortable explaining this to your customer,” says McLean. “You have to get over yourself and not say, ‘well, I wouldn’t want it.’ Then, don’t buy handmade tile. That’s OK. There’s nothing the matter with that. If your customer can’t live with variation and your showroom has mass-produced tile that offers consistency and uniformity, then steer them to that. Terrific—you’ve made a customer happy. The whole point is to make your customer happy and get the sale.”


Of course, handmade tile can be pricier than machine-made tile. Sometimes that difference is substantial. “Sell handmade tile in a positive way and don’t be apologetic about the price. These are handmade and special, so they aren’t available to a whole lot of people,” says McLean.

Handmade tile doesn’t have to be thought of as a big expense though. For example, “It isn’t as expensive as people think,” says Blanc. “It is usually one of the least expensive components of a remodel. A client might spend $10,000 on cabinets, but only $500 to $2500 on ten square feet of handmade tile for the backsplash. When you think of it that way, it is very affordable. It is an inexpensive way to get a work of art in your home.”

“Our whole industry needs educating on what their product is realistically and how to sell it that way,” says McLean. “Selling the expectation is absolutely critical.”

“Companies that have the most difficulties selling handmade tiles are the ones who started out in the business selling mainly to contractors and builders. They’ve been selling only mass produced tile and are now trying to get into selling the more decorative market and the more high-end market,” explains McLean. “The customer is different, the way you sell it is different, the product is different, everything about it is different and if that transition isn’t made they are not going to do a good job or understand the product. It is really critical to understand you’re selling an entirely different kind of tile.

With handmade tile, there will be some variation with color, size, and thickness. Also, it is important to consider a realistic lead-time. Most handmade tiles are not stocked, they are ordered. This must be explained to the client.


“The most critical point is to sell the tile realistically,” says McLean. “You can’t put your own personal likes and dislikes on it. Your job is to explain those expectations to your customers and not to explain your own biases and preferences and that is what most sales associates are not doing.”

According to McLean, “I can give you lots of reasons to sell art tile, but the dealer cannot expect art tile to sell itself. They have to understand their market and be prepared professionally to accurately represent the products they show during the sales process.

“For example, you should have correct information on the back of a concept board. And give as much information as you can about the product right there, so you don’t have to run back to a book and look it up,” says McLean. “The other thing I think is really important is to create a guide for color variation. You can cook the same recipe time and time again and it always comes out slightly differently.”

Glaze Variation

Because of the nature of handmade tile, glazes will differ somewhat. This is why color range is important when sampling art tile. Smart tile factories make sure their customers understand this, to avoid the dreaded ‘matching’ issue.

For example, in the brochure for Motawi’s art tile, it says, “Glazes vary significantly in shade, hue and surface quality. This natural variation is intrinsic to their beauty. To avoid misconceptions we require all customers to approve a range sample (3-6 pieces of the same glaze showing the variation to be expected) before placing an installation order.”

In McIntyre’s catalogue, it says, “Glaze colors vary from tile to tile, some more than others. These variations are intentional, resulting from our particular production methods…always work from a sampling of three or more tiles.”

Handmade tile has variation and that is part of its appeal. Says McLean, “With handmade tile, if you get uniformity and consistency it no longer looks handmade, so that is part of the expectation to embrace and to feel good about.”


Avente Ceramic Tiles

Handmade Tile Association

McIntyre Tile Company Inc.

Motawi Tile

Sunny McLean & Company

Wholesale Tile and Accessories

It only takes 5 points!

To encourage more active members, CTDA launched the “Get Active” campaign, which includes awarding points for attending the Management Conference, and for leveraging CTDA benefits like the CCTS program, the upcoming webinar series, and the CTDA trade mission to China, as well as for participation on committees and the Board of Directors.

We’ve also added some additional incentives for becoming active members. Active members who attend the 2008 Management conference will be eligible for a drawing for their choice of free golf or a free tour at the event. Active Members will also be recognized at the Management Conference. Since it only takes 5 points to achieve active membership, I hope you’ll consider our challenge to raise your level of participation in CTDA.

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The first CTDA webinar on “Recession Issues” with Al Bates of the Profit Planning Group, was a great success. All of the respondents to a post-webinar survey ranked it a “5” on a scale of 1 to 5. As one respondent commented, “Very worthwhile…when is the next one?” CTDA staff is currently finalizing the seminar schedule. Please check the website, for an updated calendar and registration!

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