By Megan Salzano-Birch—After two years of slow decline, the tile category is back on top. U.S. suppliers are touting record-high sales in 2021 and expected ongoing growth as a result of changing consumer habits and a booming housing market—both spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic caused uncertainty across the board in 2020, it became clear in the year that followed that flooring would get a lift from the otherwise adverse event.
Taking a look at the numbers, through Q2 2021 total U.S. ceramic tile consumption rose 23.7% by volume vs. 2020, according to the Tile Council of North America (TCNA). In addition, through Q2 2021, the U.S. imported 1.10 billion square feet of ceramic tile, up 34.8% from Q2 2020.
Suppliers agree the tile category’s growth was in the low double digits thanks to life in the “age of COVID-19,” a welcome change from tile’s previous and recent performance. “Our expectation is that the tile market grew by 10% in the past year,” said Raj Shah, president, MSI. “The pandemic put a renewed interest in the home. Demand soared with work-from-home, educate-from-home as well as discretionary spending transitioning from travel/leisure to the home.”
Patrick Warren, vice president of residential sales, dealer and showrooms, Dal-Tile Corporation, agreed, adding, “People are still spending more time at home due to the lifestyle changes begun last year during the pandemic. Many began dreaming of or executing remodeling projects last year because the extreme at-home time was a daily reminder of remodeling projects they wanted to tackle. Much of that remodeling work is spilling over into 2021.”
Indeed, one bright spot for the category is the boom in the housing market. Housing remains a steady meter against which to gauge the health of the ceramic tile market in the U.S., and numerous factors such as home renovations, new purchases and low interest rates have had a positive impact on tile’s outlook.
For example, sales of newly built, single-family homes in September rose 14% to an 800,000 seasonally adjusted annual rate, according to data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Ceramic residential sales in the U.S. are at record highs,” said Suzi Portugal, vice president of design and sourcing, Anthology. “I attribute this to the strong growth in the housing market as well as the extreme increase in the sheer number of home renovations—creating an unprecedented demand of building materials, which have impacted the tile industry in a positive upswing.”
Doug Hayes, vice president of sales, Florida Tile, added, “The residential ceramic tile business has been strong through the pandemic, and we expect it to continue to be strong in 2022. This is especially true for the residential remodel segment.”
Mara Villanueva-Heras, vice president marketing, Emser Tile, agreed, noting that quarantine paired with extremely low interest rates has fueled the demand for new home purchases along with the renovation and upgrading of existing homes. “The pandemic is still impacting consumption since there continues to be high demand for new homeownership as well as for upgrading of existing homes. As more homes are being constructed and purchased, more tile products are needed for primary areas such as kitchen and bathroom floors and walls.”
There’s no doubt that tile is on the comeback, but that begs the question: which products are seeing the most growth? For some suppliers, growth is occurring across the board and isn’t expected to stop.
“We have seen significant growth in all residential-related products,” MSI’s Shah told FCNews. “In addition, we have seen a transition to higher-price-point products by the consumer. The only segment that we have seen some trepidation is commercial but that is to be expected with the pandemic. With the infrastructure spend as well as travel/leisure coming back, we expect this to increase as well in 2022.”
For Emser, Villanueva-Heras noted some standouts. “Larger format tile continues to gain market share as it provides a more seamless installation with less visible grout lines. Tile that mimics natural materials such as wood, marble, terrazzo, concrete and brick is extremely popular, along with handcrafted looks that feature highly tactile qualities and color variance. Ceramic wall tile and decorative mosaics in unique patterns, shapes and colors continue to gain popularity as consumers look to more dramatic feature walls and backsplashes to individualize their spaces. R11 anti-slip tile, pavers, pool tile and ledgers also grow in importance as outdoor projects and budgets increase as a result of the pandemic.”
Supply chain challenges, labor shortages
While the tile market has reaped the benefits of a booming housing market and stay/work-from-home lifestyle, it is not without its trials. Industry experts agree, supply chain slowdowns and the ongoing installer shortage are two of the toughest challenges the category is facing today.
When it comes to the supply chain challenges, suppliers agree slowdowns, rising costs and transportation are all being affected in unprecedented ways. “We continue to have multiple unexpected supply chain issues that have never impacted our industry before,” Anthology’s Portugal told FCNews. “All of these factors affect sales, starting with tariffs, anti-dumping and as a result of COVID-19, lack of employees, shipping and rising costs.”
MSI’s Shah agreed, noting supply chain and inflation will be the biggest issues for residential ceramic in 2021. “The supply chain both internationally and domestically has caused a lot of bottle necks with the supply of ceramic tile. Raw materials are hard to procure and transport, which has caused issues for domestic factories. Inflation as it relates to raw material costs, natural gas, labor, trucking, etc., are all increasing the pricing of ceramic tile. There remains a lot of opportunity for those that are adaptable and can pivot quickly. The most important thing today is having a flexible supply chain. The government along with the ports and trucking companies have all realized the issues but they will take time to sort things out. The best solution is having an adaptable business model.”
Supply chain hardship is just one of two pressing concerns for category leaders. The labor shortage, which is affecting the industry as a whole, adds particularly difficult constraints to the tile category as it often requires highly skilled tradespeople to install. “This issue definitely needs to be addressed by the industry with a heightened focus on both adequate training and compensation to retain young talent in this profession,” Emser’s Villanueva-Heras noted. “Many organizations, companies and schools are working to turn the tide and help drive new workers into the trades, but it will take time to recover. In the interim, the industry will continue to look at innovative ways to ease installation or identify alternatives to relieve some of the pressure and push for new growth in the segment.”
MSI’s Shah, agreed, adding, “As an industry this continues to be a problem that plagues us. Much is being done to recruit and to train new installers. In addition, tile setting companies as well as product development continues to find ways to enable ceramic tile to be installed quicker and more efficiently. Hopefully the industry together gets behind the problem and I’m sure solutions can be found.”
Dal-Tile’s Warren noted the The Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF)’s efforts to address the issue. “The FCEF is a great way to bring together those seeking tremendous career opportunity and an industry looking for talented, motivated individuals. FCEF is focused on recruitment, scholarships and placement for tomorrow’s flooring craftsmen. FCEF exists to bring awareness to the opportunities in the flooring industry, recruit new talent, aid in the funding of the student’s education and facilitate job placement for these individuals into flooring industry careers. I am a big fan.”
While solutions to the issue seem to be growing, most suppliers agree the challenge is here to stay. “The lack of qualified labor is certainly a tremendous challenge for the tile industry,” said Mike Vail, chief sales officer, Florida Tile. “Although many fine industry organizations, including the NTCA and CTEF, are doing excellent work to improve the situation, I am confident that this will remain an unfortunate reality for 2022.”
The tile category continues to bear its challenges well and remains poised for growth in the coming years. With that in mind, tile suppliers are continuing to push innovation as the means to gain lost market share and elevate tile in the eyes of the consumer.
“Technology is expanding the flooring tile category with new visuals empowering homeowners and designers to create any look they desire without performance concerns,” Dal-Tile’s Warren said. “New digital printing technology allows tile manufacturers to create realistic looking materials, from rustic wood finishes and high-end luxurious marble to handmade tiles that replicate what you would find in Spain or Morocco, while still retaining all the benefits of tile.”
Daltile has launched several new collections that tout advanced technology, including RevoTile, billed as a spectacular game-changer for the tile industry that has the potential to increase retailer’s revenue and serve as a solution to the shortage of qualified tile installers.
Daltile’s new Defend is another distinct product line of high-performance tile featuring Microban technology—a boon to today’s “germ-aware” world. Because Microban technology is built into the tile, it will not wash off or wear away, resulting in a surface that is consistently protected from the growth of bacteria, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
For MSI, Shah agreed that technological advancements have boosted tile’s position, noting that innovation always improves the value proposition. “Ink jet significantly influenced the tile industry and increased its usage exponentially. Today, forms of thin tile help reduce freight costs. Most importantly, we are seeing great developments in the form of pavers, wall tile and countertops that makes ceramic tile a great value for consumers.”
MSI recently introduced Zero-slip, a proprietary technology providing exceptional slip-resistance for wet and dry flooring, ensuring a dynamic coefficient of friction value of at least 50% greater than the industry standard. The technology is included on all MSI Arterra porcelain pavers and various tiles installed indoors and outdoors.
For Emser Tile, sustainable attributes, antimicrobial protection, ease of care and maintenance, along with new groutless formats continue to improve the value proposition of tile to U.S. consumers, according to Villanueva-Heras noted. “Also, through innovative design, dense body ceramic products can be installed in a way that enhances indoor air quality, creating building efficiency by controlling ambient room temperatures of a space, all while reducing heating and air conditioning costs.”
Emser’s L’Amour is a mosaic tile collection that pairs the look of natural marble with an eco-conscious, recycled glass construction. Included in the collection are seven classic shapes that include a picket, diamond, leaf, triad, kaleidoscope, square and rectangle, which are inspired by the popular marble-look trend. Its recycled glass construction provides the elegance and sophistication of natural marble while allowing for easy care and maintenance along with better affordability.
For Florida Tile, ceramic wall tile continues to expand in shapes, finishes and structures. Amplify, from Florida Tile, is a large-format wall tile collection that adds form and depth to any applications. “Wavy and geometric 3D structures create visual interest that you can’t help but reach out and touch,” said Micah Hand, director of marketing and product management, Florida Tile.
Anthology’s Portugal added that the tile industry is ever evolving with better graphics, improved glazing and new technology. “I saw firsthand at Cersaie in Italy the newest products were incredible replicas of different materials and stone. This continually amazes me and helps in the increasing growth.”
Anthology recently revealed On the Edge, a collection of genuine rose gold, platinum and 14K gold framed tiles in 4 x 16 and 6-inch hexagonal shapes.