The chaos makes sense, when trends work to advantage

An architect came by the W.I. Media/Coverings booth at September’s IIDEX show in Toronto and asked whether we knew of a cost-effective but low-maintenance alternative type of flooring he could spec for condos he was helping to develop. After thinking about it for a few seconds, we recommended LVT. This was no knock on other options; he had simply assessed those and wanted alternatives.

We all know what LVT stands for, but the architect didn’t. He had never heard of luxury vinyl tile before, and he had to repeat it a few times to get it right. He liked what we had to say about LVT, so we suggested he visit a Canadian flooring supplier’s booth to learn more. After about half-an-hour, he came back and declared he will now spec LVT for all future condo projects. That, in a nutshell, is a case study in how flooring trends develop, grow and sustain themselves.

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Toronto advertising agency exhibits two trends highlighted by Inger Bartlett. First, hardwood floors are still in. Second, their neutral tones can be used to highlight more vivid components of a room. Projects illustrated in this story were designed by Bartlett & Associates.

The word trend is often bandied about to the point where its meaning can be confused. In flooring, we often hear about “trends” or what’s hot, without understanding if it’s even true, or what it all means. Yet trends do exist, floorcovering professionals need to learn what they are, and, most importantly, how to benefit as a result.

The anecdote above isn’t just a one-off. It reflects research done on flooring in Canada, as well as the experience of professionals in the field. Santo Torcivia is president of Market Insights, a market-research consultancy based in Reading, Pa. In partnership with Coverings, Torcivia conducted a survey of our readership in November 2013 to ascertain trends in the Canadian floorcovering industry.

First, the survey found that 27 percent of respondents’ sales were from LVT, which is approximately the same as it is in the U.S., where it has been trending up in the last number of years. Torcivia says, “The research does show that LVT is selling very well right now. So, it’s not just hearsay. The numbers tend to back it up, too.”

Alternatively, evidence on the ground tends to also back up this trend. Inger Bartlett is president of Bartlett & Associates, an interior-design firm in Toronto, Ont. She says, “Alternatives to flooring products that look like wood are definitely popular these days, and luxury vinyl tile would certainly be near the top of the list.”

According to the survey, such alternatives, which would include LVT, vinyl or resilient sheet, or tile flooring, constitute 64 percent of survey respondents’ product offerings. In the resilient category as a whole, average increase in quantity sales was 8 percent, and the increase in dollars sales was 5 percent.

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The Quebec City-based wealth management arm of a major Canadian bank joins the growing trend in porcelain tile.

Both Torcivia and Bartlett point to tiles as a hot product in today’s flooring market. Bartlett says, “Porcelain tile is definitely trending today. It provides a lot of flexibility, both from an interior-design standpoint, and in terms of pricing.” According to Torcivia, “Ceramic tile is something we’re still seeing a lot of, both in the States and in Canada.”

However, Torcivia points to a change that’s occurring with not only tiles, but flooring manufacturing in general. He says, “Recently, China has been the driving force in tiles and in other flooring categories. But we’re seeing some migration of production to the United States, and I believe that’s being driven by higher oil prices. It’s just costing too much to transport product all the way from the east.”

Torcivia also provides some insight into what makes the Canadian flooring sector unique. He says, “For one thing, Canadians are generally more averse to the big box stores than Americans are. That might present Canadian flooring specialty retailers with some opportunities. For example, Sam’s Club is a retail club — similar to Costco — that is run by Walmart. It didn’t do well in Canada.”

Another difference between American and Canadian flooring relates to volume and price. Torcivia says, “Generally speaking, Canadians tend to buy more in terms of quantity, but less in terms of price. From that we can probably conclude that Canadians are buying shorter-term flooring solutions, and therefore coming back to buy more often.”

Yet another difference Torcivia sees across the Canada/U.S. border is the manner in which trends spread. He says, “There’s an old expression here in the States. Tastes spread from California eastward, while trends come from Europe, and spread westward. The result tends to be consistent shopping trends throughout the country. In Canada, it’s different.”

Torcivia explains, “Canada tends to be more regionalized, and there tends to be a greater urban/rural difference. In fact, that’s where I see some potential opportunity for Canadian flooring retailers. While some of the larger retail outlets become concentrated in the cities, a small flooring retailer could take advantage of rural shoppers seeking value in their purchasing decisions.”

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Vale is a mining company. A lunchroom in its Mississauga, Ont., facility reflects what Vale does; vinyl tile is a metal/nickel-like colour.

One real-word flooring trend that has taken Bartlett by surprise is a somewhat different take on flooring material we’re all very familiar with. She says, “Polished concrete has become very popular — in both commercial and residential settings. We’re seeing it everywhere, including in lofts. It’s considered a sustainable product in terms of the processes used to make it. It’s also allergy-resistant, for example.”

While trends often seem as common and accessible as the air we breathe, they’re not as random or haphazard as some might think. In reality, organizations, such as the Color Marketing Group (CMG), exist that help establish the interior-design trends we see all around us — from the colour of appliances and countertops to the flooring and furniture products they’re matched up with.

It’s not a conspiracy. On the contrary, manufacturers and shoppers benefit when the various products they’re offered can go together, visually. Otherwise, it might be impossible for people to buy a fridge, for example, that would go with the tile they have installed on the kitchen floor. It’s a process that comes with some structure but, as with much in life, nothing is set in stone.

Bartlett has experienced this trend-setting process first hand. She says, “A few years ago, the CMG came to me showing some samples and wanting input into the colours that might work as a trend. I have some mixed feelings when it comes to trends. On the one hand, they give people options that can work. On the other hand, a custom look is often what we strive for in design, and trends may not always provide the answer.”

Bartlett uses a recent project as an example: “We did a renovation on a historic building. We had a directive to, as much as possible, preserve the original look. So that means, by definition, we don’t abide by current trends, but by previous trends. Having said that, we were still able to use current products and methods to enhance the design. As with so many things, there’s a balance involved.”

This seemingly love-hate relationship with the notion of trends is something Bartlett struggles with as an interior designer. “In the end, you have to satisfy the client. They’re often influenced by what they see in all the style magazines and in Ikea. However, as an independent interior designer, I believe the client is best served with a custom design solution.”

The extent to which a custom solution can be offered to a consumer often depends on the type of product involved. For example, kitchen cabinetry is a big ticket item, so it’s unlikely that a thousand versions of kitchen cabinets can be offered. However, other products, such as flooring, give consumers and designers more flexibility.

Bartlett explains, “As we say, a can of paint comes cheap. What we mean by this is that paint is something that is relatively inexpensive but can dramatically change the look of a room or space. Similarly, you can make relatively small changes with your flooring decisions that can result in dramatic changes in the final design.”

An example of this is wood flooring. Bartlett says, “You know, my preference is always to keep the existing solid wood flooring in a project. You can sand it down, refinish it. It can serve as a neutral piece in an otherwise colourful area. Alternatively, you can finish it any way you want. I have seen some wood floors painted red. There are so many things you can do.”

Indeed, the design options available to consumers can be limitless, which is why trends help make some sense of the chaos. Today, LVT, resilient, and tile appear to be on the rise, tomorrow it might be back to the ‘80s again, when broadloom ruled supreme. Regardless, enterprising flooring professionals always work hard to discern the latest in flooring trends and, as a result, ensuring business success by offering value to customers.

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