November 6/13, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 11
By K.J. Quinn
Stone flooring flourished as a premium upgrade over ceramic tile, high-end faux stones and even certain hardwoods the past several years, industry experts say. And while the green movement continues to influence consumer preferences toward materials made of or replicating natural materials, the category is experiencing some bumps in the road that threaten to slow down sales growth into 2018.
“We haven’t seen major growth this year in this segment,” said Marc Bergeron, natural stone manager, Cosentino. “We detected a decrease in natural stone demand for flooring.”
The U.S. natural quartz and manufactured stone products market is a $10 billion-plus industry, according to the Catalina Research Natural and Manufactured Stone Product Industry Report released in December 2015 from Ceramic Tile and Stone Consultants (CTaSC) and Catalina Research. While U.S. stone product sales increased an estimated 7.4% during 2016 to $10.2 billion in manufacturers’ dollars, the market is expected to grow more moderately this year. “Volume in 2016 was estimated to be 120 million square feet and is also expected to continue to grow more moderately in 2018,” stated Donato Pompo, CTaSC founder.
Market conditions have softened in the past year due to a variety of reasons. The low end has been impacted by an oversaturation of commodity stones and improved aesthetics in competitive floors such as LVT and ceramic tile. The housing market hasn’t helped, as private owned housing starts were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.12 million in September, which is 4.7% below the revised August estimate, the Commerce Department reports.
The stone business faces a host of competitive issues. For example, the nature-inspired styles and appearances of stone are among the most knocked off in the flooring industry. “You can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy porcelain tiles that look like natural stone for a lot less than you would pay for the natural stone,” Pompo said.
New inkjet technologies are creating porcelain and ceramic tiles to replicate the natural variations typical of stone, making it increasingly difficult for the naked eye to discern the differences between products. Where stone is being hit hardest by these innovations is in the low end as competitors aim to capture more share from customers who are shopping for stone but may be more attracted to the performance benefits of ceramic tile. “The technological advancements in porcelain tile technology have impacted stones sales, both commercially and residentially,” said Bart Bettiga, executive director, National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA).
A bugaboo hampering stone sales is the perception it is a high-end product with limited clientele. For years, industry stakeholders and trade associations have touted the benefits of natural stone and dispelled false perceptions to consumers and the A&D community. And while stone remains among the most expensive flooring options, prices have come down so it’s more affordable.
Life cycle costing can provide consumers with insight into the value of stone compared to other flooring. Natural stone can be refinished to look like new after years of wear, unlike porcelain tiles which can get damaged and need to be replaced. And when installed prices are amortized over the life of the floor, experts say the costs look even more reasonable.
“No matter what, the search for low-cost, high-performing products is there and, at the same time, making sure the quality is right for customer expectations,” said Roy Viana, director of natural stone at Dal-Tile. “There is always a demand for that entry-level, low-cost price point.”
An increasing number of retail channels sell stone, making it more available to consumers, architects and designers. At the same time, it is also contributing to more competitive pricing. “Home Depot, Lowe’s, the Tile Shop—what we consider retail distributors—are bringing in more affordable stones that are more accessible to the retail customer,” Viana observed.
Like ceramic tile, the stone industry is plagued by a shortage of qualified installers, making it difficult for retailers to keep up with demand. “If stone tile is not installed properly, it can be quite expensive to fix,” Bettiga said. “Suppliers who sell stone tile and refer or subcontract the installation should make sure the installers have a proven track record of success in stone tile installation.”
Stone tiles are timeless, having been used inside residential spaces for thousands of years.
Among the most popular options for use in the home are granite, limestone, sandstone, slate and flagstone. Each piece maintains its own veining, coloring and natural imperfections, depending on the type of stone and location of the quarry.
“I continue to see limestone and honed materials used regularly,” Bettiga said. “Slate is also popular in many geographic regions, both indoors and in exterior applications.”
What’s trending are dark gray, soft red and medium green colors available in geometric and irregular sizes. Hard, sense stones that are non-porous are being used more frequently in high-traffic areas. Classic styles, such as white marbles, are also growing in popularity and available in many variations.
“Natural stone slabs seem like an innovation,” Bergeron said. “Certain factories are now using [them] to provide more options in large format tiles that previously were only available in a 2-cm thickness.”
In the past year, Nemo Tile introduced Think Thin 1.2, which offers large format, natural stone tiles in a 1.2-cm thickness. “This product is the result of innovation in block processing, slab finishing, material handling and special crates,” said Dan Gorecki, director, stone division. “Designers, contractors and clients are able to have large, slab-sized panels at a fraction of the cost for a custom slab fabrication project.” The lighter weighing materials translate into savings on local shipping, waste and jobsite handling.
Bigger is better when it comes to size, experts say. Variations from tile to tile are more evident, plus it meets pent-up demand for larger formats in residential and commercial spaces. “Recent trends seem to be toward larger format tiles,” Bergeron noted.
Specialized natural stone formats are also gaining traction. For example, “We’ve been seeing a lot of varied, hexagon-like shapes, which is due to design flexibility,” Viana said. “You can create a lot of different, unique installations, even vertical vs. horizontal.”
A newer process enabling highly styled and intricate patterns is water-jet mosaics. “You can program in designs and there is no limit to what it can look like,” Viana explained. “You can program in a flower and get petals cut.”
The latest styles and colors in stone provide end users with more flooring choices than ever before, fueling the trend toward mixing and matching different materials. As Gorecki explained, “Design trends are constantly in flux with colors, tile sizes and details changing by market and application.”