by Matthew Spieler
Since the economic downturn started, the resilient category has been steadily gaining market share and taking back some of what it lost over the previous decade-and-a-half when expensive, exotic floors were all the rage. But as consumers tightened their belts and commercial specifiers were forced to work with smaller budgets, they went searching for products that gave them both the high-end styling they had become used to and strong performance features to make their purchases last longer. In other words, products that provided value, and resilient became the benefactor.
During this time, the surging popularity in both residential and commercial applications of luxury vinyl tile (LVT) has been credited by most as the reason behind the resilient category’s resurgence. And while this is certainly true as LVT accounted for more than 33% of the category’s sales last year, there is another product segment within resilient that has helped it recapture market share: Fiberglass or glass-backed floors.
In 2011, FCNews research showed fiberglass floors accounted for 15.6% of all resilient sales, whereas in 2007, these floors had a 10% share of sales. To take it one step further, last year approximately 35% of sheet sales came from glass-backed products, which up until a decade ago were 100% felt-backed products.
“The industry is trending away from felt and more toward fiberglass which is a nice alternative,” said Larry Stott, vice president of technical services for DriTac, which earlier this year introduced DT5200, an adhesive designed for products such as glass-backed floors. “It’s a rollable only, low viscosity, pressure sensitive product that works perfectly with these types of sheet goods. We make a lot of vinyl glues so we took an LVT product and modified it to make it easy for rolling.”
When it comes to fiberglass, manufacturers note it offers numerous benefits over traditional felt and other resilient goods that both consumers and retailers find attractive.
“It’s all about style and design, which is the No. 1 driver for consumer purchases,” said Paul Mixon, Mannington’s resilient product manager. “And with fiberglass you can get tighter styling than you can with felt.”
He pointed to the company’s popular Sobella line as an example. “We now have the best styling, design and value. There are some products that are normally at the highest end and now at a stronger price point.” For instance, the Deluxe collection was added this year to Sobella as a mid-range offering to compliment the higher Supreme and OmniHD products, as well as the lower-priced Prime. “It’s got all the bells and whistles, including aluminum oxide and a urethane finish at a great price.”
Paul Murfin, president of IVC US, said besides styling “the other benefit cited by consumers is comfort underfoot. The cushioned nature of the product does not exist in traditional felt products. These are combined with the other benefits of sheet vinyl such as easy maintenance and durability. The main reasons retailers like our luxury sheet products are ease of installation, styling and quality, and the great margin opportunity.”
Allen Cubell, Armstrong’s vice president of residential resilient, agreed with Murfin’s assessment, adding, “Fiberglass goods, and those like it, such as our Luxe Plank, are generally a trade-up type of product so the opportunity to earn more profit exists.”
As for the looks, he said it is hard to beat these kinds of floors. “When you throw a sample on the floor it lays flat; it also conforms to the display. With felt products, over time, the samples start to curl and do not look as attractive.”
While the embossing and texturing processes are the same as felt floors, glass-backed ones are thicker so “they are perceived to be better. They also are more stable and have tighter tolerances, so we can do more intricate designs, whereas felt moves. That’s why wood designs have more dimensionality and stones look better—more realistic.”
Russell Rogg, president and CEO of Metroflor Corp., said the dimensional stability provided by the fiberglass is an important “inherent benefit” and the reason it is used by the company in its floating products. “Fiberglass will minimize contraction and expansion with temperature changes. This means the product will remain more stable and hold its shape when exposed to environmental variances. In addition, fiberglass minimizes the likelihood of curling or crowning.”
All these benefits, he added, also make glass-backed floors favored by installers as “there is no adhesive required, resulting in a fast, less expensive and less labor-intensive installation.”
Retailers who have been around for a while will remember a time when fiberglass floors were first introduced and then disappeared because of too many problems. Like many products, times have changed and so it is with these types of floors.
“Back in the day, there was a difference between European and domestically made fiberglass sheet,” explained Michael Raskin, CEO of Raskin Industries. “The domestically made products were primarily felt-backed, not vinyl-backed. Felt-backed sheet goods were made to be glued down and when fiberglass was inserted with felt back, the results were inconsistent, which caused a higher claim rate.”
He added his father, Gerald, was one of the first people in the ’70s to offer fiberglass sheet products made in Germany that were vinyl backed. “He was way ahead of the market and there was much success, but the dollar grew weak and the product became too expensive.”
Today, Raskin offers Elevations, a loose lay tile made with a more dense fiberglass sheet compared to products with chopped or meshed fiberglass. “You want to ensure the product remains flat and is dimensionally stable.”
Gary Finseth, director of marketing for Tarkett, which helped herald the new generation of fiberglass floors to the U.S. with its FiberFloor brand, said, “In Europe, we were selling 100% of our products with fiberglass. In 2002, we decided to bring this technology to North America and began manufacturing it domestically. And it’s been a great success story.”
While felt is still the primary sheet being sold, he noted, Tarkett bucks the trend in that 70% of its sales are fiberglass. While the rest of the category may not reach this level, Finseth feels with the overall popularity of this type of product growing, “sales could surpass felt-backed products within 10 years. Everyone is accepting and liking it, from consumer to retailer to installer.”
Murfin concluded, “No matter what flooring category you study, products are successful because of value, styling and ease of installation. Fiberglass products offer all of the above.”