Ceramic poised to take back market share

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ceramic tile
Daltile’s Defend ceramic tile line features Microban technology to attract consumers looking for healthy, clean floor products.

Ceramic tile is one of only two truly aspirational product categories available in flooring today—hardwood being the other. It offers technologically advanced features such as slip resistance and waterproofing, myriad end-use applications and unrivaled visuals and designs.

So, what gives? Despite tile’s ongoing growth for several years, the category hit a snag in 2019 and 2020 as sales dropped and growth stagnated. Industry experts have pointed to challenges like labor shortages, supply issues and rising costs as the culprits, but 2021 presents unique opportunities.

First, the market is poised and ready for high-end flooring products to take back share from the likes of “value-based” product categories like LVT, SPC and WPC. In fact, purchases of high-end homes in the U.S. jumped 26% year over year during the three months ending April 30, according to a new report from Redfin, a technology-powered real estate brokerage firm. That’s compared to the 17.8% gain in purchases of affordable homes and the 14.8% increase in purchases of mid-priced homes. The data points to aspirational—and often costlier—products taking center stage.

Various data also suggest that consumers are much more willing to spend their hard- earned cash on areas of the home where tile is indispensable, such as kitchens and baths. These spaces also offer the most resale value, especially if clad in quality tile. And let’s not forget the unexpected—and even unprecedented—boom in demand that had some dealers citing as much as 70% growth in 2020 with even more expected by Q4 2021.

So how should dealers position themselves to reap the benefits of a booming market looking for high-end, aspiration products like tile? The first step, according to suppliers, is simple. Talk about it.

“Communicating clearly goes a long way,” said Mara Villanueva-Heras, vice president marketing, Emser Tile. “It is always important to understand the look customers are seeking and what design trends they identify as a fit for their tastes. Next, probing to understand the application area, use and lifestyle will help identify their needs around waterproof or water resistance, as well as durability, scratch-resistance, etc. These scope questions along with project budget will help an RSA assist the client in transitioning a concept into a fashionable and artistic reality—in addition to selling the benefits of tile.”

Paulo Pereira, senior merchant, MSI, echoed those sentiments, adding that proper communication even allows tile to compete successfully against the dominating LVT category. “Tout the benefits that make tile great: superb slip resistance, indoor/outdoor coordination, longevity and wall-to-floor application, just to name a few,” he said. “Understand the pros and cons of tile, with the points mentioned, and clearly understand where tile stands in relation to LVT. We know LVT is the hottest category right now, but the fact is tile continues to have equally as strong interest among consumers if its attributes and benefits are conveyed properly to the consumer.”

Know your tile products and sell them. It’s a simple concept. One that Dal-Tile’s Paij Thorn-Brooks, vice president of marketing, also agrees is the key to unlocking success with the category. “Know your products and then sell the inherent benefits of tile as well as the extraordinary enhanced added value that is now present thanks to modern technology,” she explained. “Today’s savvy tile brands are not only providing you with beautiful products, but solutions to your customer’s design, renovation and building needs. Unless someone is demanding the very cheapest, short-term covering of a surface possible, you will always be able to make the argument for the way in which today’s tile products better serve their needs.”

On the commercial side of the business, it’s about tackling a whole new approach to design. “Start thinking about ceramics as more than a cladding product,” said Ryan Fasan, ceramic tile specialist and Tile of Spain consultant. “The more you can get your clients thinking about ceramics as an integral system in the building’s operation, the better off you’re going to be.”

So, what are the major points dealers should hit when upgrading consumers to tile from plastic-based products? Too many to count, but let’s take a swing at it:


Tile is touted as the original waterproof flooring, making it ideal for kitchens and baths. Seen here is Emser Tile’s Sphere in Mint.

Tile’s inherent features are vast and broad, but one particular feature has only just started taking shape in recent years and offers unmatched opportunities for dealers—application.

Unlike some flooring products, ceramic and porcelain tile can be installed almost anywhere in the home—floors, walls, countertops, backsplashes, fireplace/pool surrounds, indoors/outdoors, etc. Not only is it a selling point, but it provides dealers with an alternative to other categories that might not perform as well across a broader spectrum of applications and end uses.

“Ceramic tile has the functionality to be installed on all of your surfaces in a vast array of colors, shapes, sizes, textures and unique designs that can also be mixed—unlike LVT [and other plastic-based material] products,” said Eric Astrachan, executive director, Tile Council of North America (TCNA).

It’s not just availability, but demand that makes this a key talking point. “Consumers and designers have increased their demand for unique design on walls, feature walls, backsplashes and fireplaces, which tile provides,” Dal-Tile’s Thorn-Brooks said. “Leading brands are continually evolving their manufacturing capabilities to stay at the forefront of technology to provide even more beautiful shapes, sizes and finishes for [applications like] walls and in mosaics.”

Another feature that has risen in importance of late is tile’s inherent authenticity—real, natural materials, safe-for-the-environment manufacturing processes, healthy cleaning options—versus other product options. Not only does it speak to the millennial and gen z consumer but also to the older buyer who has a newfound appreciation for these features amid a new post-COVID-19 normal.

“With more time at home, people are curating their personal spaces more intentionally,” TCNA’s Astrachan said. “They appreciate quality and authenticity when it comes to materials vs. cheap, run-of-the-mill plastic. Instead of wanting more, people are wanting better—a somewhat minimalistic preference for quality over quantity, like ceramic tile. Sure, ceramic tile takes a little more work to install, but it’s undeniably worth it. It’s like a home-cooked meal on porcelain plates versus a TV dinner on a plastic tray—you choose.”

Of course, one of tile’s biggest plays is its centuries-old waterproof characteristics. Suppliers agree, tile is the original and the ultimate waterproof floor regardless of recent claims from proponents of resilient flooring. “It is important to note that while new competing products may claim to be waterproof, those competitors have a lot of disclaimers in their fine print because their hard surface flooring is not actually waterproof, as they claim,” Thorn-Brooks said. “Tile is 100% waterproof. While spills can ruin other flooring types, the surface of tile is unchanged by liquids, water or moisture. No other material can beat the combination of tile’s benefits for wet areas.”

Emser’s Villanueva-Heras agreed, adding, “We have seen vinyl and LVP/T touting waterproof or water-resistance as a key feature, but they are still not an aspirational product like tile. Tile remains a centuries-old solution for waterproof installation for many surfaces.”

With the talk of water coming to the forefront, innovations in surface technology are also a key selling point. Slip resistance, for example, should not be kept out of the conversation. “Slip resistance sets tiles apart,” MSI’s Pereira said. “Its unique ability to offer an exceptionally slip-resistant surface makes tile inimitable.”

Looking even further into the future, Tile of Spain’s Fasan said tile’s inherent antistatic features will play a key role in its desirability moving forward. “As integrated smart-home technologies continue to rise, the fact that ceramics are non-conductive is another major feature. Static charge and other issues can cause interference for electrical infrastructure of a smart environment and ceramics’ act as a ‘sterile field’ in the arena of technology as well as the biological.”


MSI’s Oxide, seen here, boasts ZeroSlip Technology.

While tile’s features and benefits are numerous, even more so are its design possibilities. Experts argue tile is one category that truly innovates and continuously offers up new styles, textures and designs that are unmatched in the industry.

“In years past, tile was thought of more as a utilitarian product, but with today’s technology tile offers virtually unlimited designs,” Thorn-Brooks said. “These products are able to essentially bring any aesthetic to life. This empowers tile to be a leader in the home and shelter category in continuously providing the freshest new fashion-driven products that embody the latest styles and colors.”

Even overseas suppliers contribute greatly to tile’s design aesthetics. “Italian manufacturers [offer] ground-breaking technological innovations for producing hyper-realistic material effects, like stone, wood, marble, concrete, terrazzo and more,” said Brittney Harmond, a representative of Ceramics of Italy. “The ceramic tile industry has seen incredible advancements in texture as well; today’s ceramic tiles not only look like real marble, stone and wood, but they feel like it, too, thanks to innovative finishing techniques that produce physical depressions and grooves that match the graphics.”

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June 7/14, 2021

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