October 26/November 2; Volume 30/Number 10
By K.J. Quinn
Once upon a time, stone was perceived as a flooring and countertop material purchased only by affluent shoppers. Thanks to advances in technology and lower installed price points, that is no longer the case. More retailers are expanding into the category and positioning these products as affordable upgrades to other hard surfaces.
“Today, natural stone is quarried in more countries than before, including Turkey, Morocco, China, India, Brazil and the United States,” said Roy Viana, director of natural stone and slab, Dal-Tile. “This expansion has helped to bring an array of low- to mid-cost natural stone products to customers.”
Renowned for its appealing visuals resilience and durability, stone comes in myriad shapes and designs and can be custom cut to almost any size for various surfaces. These are among the many attributes driving stone as a popular choice for floors, walls, counters and backsplashes in both wet and dry applications, experts said.
“Natural stone has increased in popularity due in part to installers becoming more familiar with the product, and the installation costs are not totally cost prohibitive,” said Katie Peralta, owner of Triton Stone Group of New Orleans in Harahan, La. “Our salespeople explain to our customers the beauty of natural stone—that it is a unique product and something that will set their projects apart.”
Natural stone flooring is made from large pieces of mountain-born stone cut down to manageable sized tiles to fit into any space. Among the most popular options are granite, limestone, sandstone, slate and flagstone, observers said, and each piece maintains its own unique veining, coloring and natural characteristics. “No two tiles are ever identical,” Viana said. “All natural stone has inherent characteristics, is natural and therefore always imperfect—or perfectly imperfect, depending upon your point of view.”
Bob Baldocchi, vice president, marketing and sales support at Emser Tile, explained, “Selling a customer natural stone is more about understanding what she wants in a project that can literally last a lifetime. If the desire is an authentic stone look and feel, then we should be providing the options to bring this to life.”
Getting into stone
For years most retailers have shied away from selling stone as it was perceived as a high-end product with limited clientele. While stone remains among the most expensive flooring material—granite can retail for $30 or more per square foot uninstalled—prices have come down considerably in recent years and is now more affordable to mainstream shoppers. “With the trend of tile moving to large formats and longer plank products, the methods of installation is much closer [to ceramic tile],” Baldocchi said. “Many stone products do recommend sealing, which can add one additional step and cost.”
Peralta said there are a number of affordable travertine and slate options, in addition to some marble products that in some cases are even less expensive than a comparable porcelain tile. “The value of installing natural stone in your project is that it is seen as an upgrade when, in some cases, it is less expensive.” When the price is amortized over the life of the floor, experts said the installed cost appears even more reasonable.
Further fueling stone sales is the popularity of white, gray and warmer color palettes, larger tile formats and linear lines. “Vein-cut travertines are the current wave in plank formats that offer a repurpose of a value-driven stone,” said Carin Atterbury, interior designer, Surface Works, Portland, Ore. “Common granites and marble can be found in tiles and slabs.” While stone is considered an upscale product, it is not a difficult business to get into. Similar to ceramic, experts advise retailers to partner with a reputable supplier and companies specializing in sourcing and distribution. “Building relationships in the stone supply industry is powerful when you can partner with suppliers who understand what they have and have a passion for its origin,” Atterbury said.
Salespeople should be properly trained so they can explain the discernible differences in value between stone and other hard surfaces. “For instance, many stones have quality grading scales that range from commercial to premium/plus graded qualities,” Baldocchi said. “These quality grades are a result of many factors, including the range and necessary fill, or corrective actions required to prepare it for sales.”
Alex Laytano, owner of Bullet Flooring in Bulverde, Texas, added, “We always tell our customers there’s no comparison to a natural product like stone. The flooring industry tries hard to duplicate its natural beauty but can never match how unique every stone tile is.”
The opportunity in stone starts with retailers embracing that it is not based on a price discussion, nor reserved only for high-end customers; there are solutions available at nearly every price point. “While many believe stone is an upgrade, we would view it as a desired product by many, and one that is available to solve the design needs of consumers,” Baldocchi noted.
Indeed, a major selling point of stone is it offers flexibility and customization in terms of patterns and design. “We present stone as a one-of-a-kind floor since each tile is different from the one next to it,” said Jim Farrell, president, Mercer Carpet One & Home, Westminster, Md.
Because stone comes in a wide range of sizes and colors—from small, polished mosaics to large, rustic black, modular tiles—it provides options to create interesting and personalized finishes and features. “For example, you can use different colored contrasting tiles to create striking effects on a floor,” Viana said, “or create a feature wall by arranging your tiles in a pattern to suggest movement or a particular shape.”
Romancing the stone
An important element for any stone business is displaying a product mix that is broad enough to appeal to varying design tastes and shopping budgets. “Merchandising is as easy as showing the product you sell,” Baldocchi said. “Large-format tiles with multiple pieces or range samples that articulate the variation in natural products are often all that is needed to explain to customers what they can expect and drive a sale.”
Stone dealers typically update their merchandising systems periodically to show off the latest looks with unique finishes and distinctive formats. “Lead and promote your offerings with new stone products,” Viana advised. “It is also vital to sell the history and romance of natural stone.”
Dealers also recommend merchandising different stone varieties at or near the front of the store. “Stone is the Versace of the hard surface market,” Atterbury said. “You wouldn’t stick Versace [products] in the corner.”
Stone is displayed in a variety of ways, from traditional installed floors and vignettes to completed job photos and large-format samples. These visual aids help turn people on to the category and allow them to envision how the product will look inside their homes. “We present the category as a viable option during the qualifying process to gauge their interest and will also show it to them on the floor and walls during the presentation,” Farrell explained. “Stone is advertised along with all other hard surface products and 75% of our stone samples are in ‘stone only’ displays.”
Industry members concur the stone flooring business can be a lucrative proposition for dealers that merchandise a broad range of styles and qualities based on the preferences of their customer base. “The stone business is a wonderful business to be in,” Peralta said. “Day in and out, we get to work with customers who are making their dream renovation or construction a reality.”