Stone Tile Trends
 
July 1st, 2011

by Kathleen Furore

The Stone Age has returned. And that’s good news for tile dealers looking to get a leg up on competitors and boost profits in the process. “We are in the Stone Age again,” says Donato Pompo, owner of Ceramic Tile and Stone Consultants (www.CTaSC.com), founder of the University of Ceramic Tile and Stone, chairman of the CTDA’s Education Committee and a Floor Covering Institute consultant. “Most everyone either wants stone or something that looks like stone. To be competitive, dealers have to offer both natural stone and stone-like ceramic tile to supply the demand and be successful.”

Products featured at the Surfaces 2011 and Coverings 2011 shows underscore stone’s resurgence. Vinyls that mimic the look of stone, and paint that creates stone’s texture and appearance are two examples Pompo cites. “At Coverings, almost every manufacturer was using the latest digital ink jet technology to produce ceramic tile that looks like an authentic stone,” he says. “They emulate stone so well that even I have trouble telling that it isn’t a stone without having to get on my hands and knees to look!”

Profit Potential
So why should dealers offer a variety of stone in their showrooms? The answer is simple for George Feldman, president of Petra Direct (www. petradirect.com), a trade partner with D&B Tile Distributors (www.dbtile.com) headquartered in Sunrise, Fla. “Money—there’s no other reason,” Feldman says. “It sells easily and installs easily. And since it accounts for 25 percent of the market, if you don’t carry it you’re losing all the customers who want stone.” The bottom line benefits are a plus. “Stone is generally much more profitable for the dealer. In general, stone sells for about $6 or more per square foot compared to average ceramic tile that sells for about $3 per square foot,” Pompo reports. “If your margin was 25 percent on your products, would you rather make 25 percent of $3 ($0.75) or 25 percent of $6 ($1.50) for the same amount of effort?”

What’s Hot
With so many stone products available, dealers can build an inventory that appeals to customers’ diverse design preferences and budgets. Granite remains a hit, especially for countertops, thanks to its durability and resistance to damage from acids and chemicals. It also comes in a wide array of color options, making it a versatile choice for dealers to carry. Betty Sullivan, president of Architectural Ceramics, Inc. (www.architecturalceramics.net) —a company with stores in Baltimore, Bethesda and Rockville, Md., and Alexandria and Falls Church, Va.—agrees granite is still popular. But she sees customers “going more exotic and using all different stone with their countertops.

“People are using stones like Zebrano [glazed porcelain tile reminiscent of zebrawood, produced by Cerim Ceramiche],” she says. “The most popular stone in residential applications right now is Carrera in the lightest [color] available, while Calcutta Gold [Marble] is the most popular for people with deeper pockets.” Pompo says limestone is favored in higher-end homes, with travertine the choice for price-conscious homeowners. “Slate, sandstone and quartzite seem more popular for exterior applications where slipresistance is needed,” he adds.

Although rustic, earthy-looking tumbled stones continue selling well, their popularity is waning as products with clean, straight edges gain ground, according to Steve Vogel, executive vice-president of Conestoga Tile (www.conestogatile.com), a wholesale ceramic tile and stone distributor operating in central Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C. “Also, lineal looks are gaining more and more favor whether they are in the form of mosaics or rectangle-shaped tile.”

Color-wise, Sullivan reports that gray, taupe and white stone dominate. Vermont Danby, a white stone with taupe and black veining, and Alabama stone, which is white with small, cloudy grey touches, are two favorite domestic stones, she says. The “latest big thing” Pompo sees are composite tiles made of a porcelain base laminated with a 1/8-inch thin layer of real natural stone. These hybrids, also known as compound tiles, are priced at approximately $7 per square foot at retail, Pompo says. Engineered stone—a type of composite made of approximately 90 percent quartz mixed with resin—is one of the most promising items to hit the stone tile market, Feldman notes. “Mixed with polymers, this new stone can be used in residential and commercial applications and installs easily,” he says.

Education is Key
Offering stone will help attract new customers. But closing a sale can be challenging, which makes some tile dealers hesitant to stock stone. “Some dealers are afraid to sell stone because they don’t understand it,” says Pompo. “The key is to educate customers and employees alike about the tradeoffs so they know the features and benefits, and don’t get false expectations.” Stone’s high-maintenance reputation, for example, can turn some customers off right away. It must be sealed initially, and resealed regularly, to prevent staining. And since acids can damage most natural stone, special ph-neutral stone cleaners are recommended. “Stone requires maintenance, some stones more than others, depending on its application and what type of traffic and climactic conditions it is subjected to,” Pompo explains. “But many stones are very durable and perform well in many applications. Unlike ceramic tile, if it chips it is the same material so it won’t be a distraction and it can be repaired.” And as Feldman points out, technology has made stone easier than ever to maintain. “There are products on the market to help seal and maintain stone floors. Customers just need to be educated first—then it is easy,” he says. One of those products is Q-Seal™ (www.q-seal.com), a permanent, factory-applied sealer baked into tiles before installation. It is guaranteed for life to prevent the effects of water and stains, and to never need resealing, Feldman says.

Stone’s physical properties and performance also vary greatly. Granite, for example, is not uniform in pattern or color—something customers should know before they buy. “A particular geological “Most everyone either wants stone or something that looks like stone.” Feature 24 TileDealer July/August 2011 classification of one type of stone from the same quarry can vary significantly from one part of the quarry compared to another, so it is important the buyers purchase stone from reliable suppliers who have verified each stone meets the minimum/ maximum ASTM requirements for its category,” Pompo explains. “Customers who want a uniform look should not use stone unless they are willing to purchase more than they need,” Sullivan cautions. Explaining all of stone’s nuances is important—otherwise consumers develop false expectations about the product they’re purchasing and ultimately become unhappy, Pompo says. “Make sure the stone they select is suitable for the intended application. The dealer has to make sure their supplier is testing their stone and providing them with data sheets explaining the recommendations and limitations,” he adds. “They [suppliers] should provide installation guidelines for various applications,” as well.

Tile dealers also should merchandise stone in creative ways. Pompo suggests displaying the full range of options available in current inventory, and offering pictures of stone in different applications to stimulate sales. “Pictures of projects that combine different types and sizes of stone and those that mix stone with glass and ceramic tile can show how to create a custom look, Pompo explains.

Ultimately, says Vogel, it is all about telling stone’s story. “The only way a dealer can tell that story about natural stone is if they understand the product themselves. Know where it is from, how nature made it, its limitations, how it’s quarried and prepared for the market,” he concludes.

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