Vinyl: Building Marketshare - February 2011

By Darius Helm

 

Vinyl is resilient in more ways than one. Over the last decade, in the face of a long-term slide in marketshare, the category has elevated its profile with the development of two significant sub-categories, luxury vinyl tile (and plank) and glass-backed sheet vinyl. The two products are largely responsible for the marketshare vinyl has taken from other flooring categories over the last four years.

According to Market Insights/Torcivia, LVT now accounts for nearly one-third of all U.S. resilient tile sales—the balance is largely VCT—at about $255 million and shows no signs of slowing its growth. Luxury vinyl serves both the residential and commercial markets, with residential sales accounting for close to 60% of revenues.

In the commercial resilient market, where VCT has about 50% of the share, LVT is quickly gaining on sheet goods for the bulk of the balance.

The leading LVT player is Amtico, followed by Tarkett (including Centiva). Other big players are Mannington, Armstrong, Congoleum and Metroflor. Parterre, Karndean and CBC Flooring are also significant LVT producers, and both IVC and Shaw have recently entered that category as well. Commercial specialists Roppe and Flexco, both of which focus on rubber flooring, also offer a range of vinyl tiles.

Glass-backed sheet vinyl, the vast majority of which goes to the residential market, now accounts for 25% of the total residential sheet vinyl business, according to Market Insights/Torcivia. That’s quadruple where it stood five years ago. IVC and Tarkett are the market leaders, with Armstrong close behind, followed by Mannington. Congoleum has transitioned from its AirStep glass-backed line to Evolution, also a loose-lay product, though it achieves its dimensional stability through felt and a polymer instead of fiberglass to accommodate expansion and contraction.

On the residential side, luxury vinyl makes up about 25% of the vinyl flooring market and sheet goods account for about 75% (19% glass-backed and 56% felt-backed). That means that the share gainers already account for 44% of the residential vinyl market. Overall, 35% of the total resilient category goes to the commercial market and 65% goes residential.

Environmental Progress
Commercial VCT has been losing share for several years now, but the major VCT producers have been fighting back with a range of environmental developments. Armstrong, for instance, has had great success with its Migrations bio-based tile, which replaces the vinyl content of VCT with Bio-Stride, a polyester with corn polyols for a total bio-based content of 2%. Both Mannington and Tarkett’s Azrock are in the VCT recycling business, together reclaiming over 40 million pounds of material to turn into new VCT. Mannington’s program, which recaptures VCT from regions surrounding its New Jersey production facility, was launched in 2009 and already accounts for nearly ten million pounds. Tarkett’s global ReUse/ReStart programs pull in over 150 million pounds of product a year, including commercial flooring, product samples and installation waste.

So far, there’s not much in the way of reclaimed sheet goods and LVT being turned into new product, in part because of technical issues. While VCT is a homogeneous blend of vinyl and limestone, a lot of the luxury vinyl and sheet flooring out there features multiple layers, including different materials like felt and fiberglass on the residential side, so it’s no easy feat to turn those products, with adhesive stuck to the back, into new vinyl flooring. 

South Korea’s LG, whose vinyl products are now channeled domestically through Shaw Industries, does produce sheet vinyl with post-consumer recycled content from reclaimed sheet goods, and it’s able to accomplish this because it reclaims in South Korea, where its products are spot-glued, making reclamation much easier. 

In the U.S., the leader in recycled content PVC products is Centiva, the progressive luxury vinyl specialist acquired by Tarkett last November. All three of Centiva’s product lines feature recycled content, with post-consumer content on all but Victory’s homogeneous line. Victory’s Stria product has total recycled content of 53%. The firm is gradually boosting recycled content in all of its lines.

In addition to recycling and reclamation, most of the big firms are also addressing environmental issues relating to energy, water use and emissions. Mannington, for instance, recently expanded its solar array at its New Jersey facility. The 3.3 acres of solar panels now generate nearly 1,000,000 kWh of clean energy. Armstrong is pursuing a range of goals for reducing fresh water use and greenhouse gas emissions and recently installed a new chiller at its Lancaster, Pennsylvania headquarters that reduces carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 500 tons a year. And Centiva has also upgraded its Alabama facility, with Energy Star certified motors and more efficient steam lines.

RFCI VS. THE ECOLOGY CENTER

The Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) recently responded to a report on vinyl flooring by The Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a four-point rebuttal calling into question both the scientific rigor and blanket conclusions of the report.

The Ecology Center tested over 1,000 flooring samples (along with 2,300 wallpaper samples) for a range of chemicals, including heavy metals and phthalates, recording detectable lead levels in 2% of sheet vinyl samples (23 to 731).

The report on the group's consumer website (www.healthystuff.org) also claims that tests detected organotin stabilizers in 64% of PVC flooring tiles (39 out of 61). According to the group, "some forms of organotins are endocrine disruptors; and other forms can impact the developing brain and are toxic to the immune system." In addition, testing of two domestic brands and two discount brands revealed "four phthalate plasticizers recently banned in children's products."

In response, RFCI first made a case for the fundamental viability of vinyl as an environmentally responsible product, then took the environmental group to task for its specific claims. Then, RFCI criticized The Ecology Center for only conducting phthalate tests on four of the 792 samples. More importantly, RFCI pointed out that The Ecology Center, in "fine print," states that its test results only detect and measure the presence of the chemicals in question and do not measure the health risk or exposure to the tested chemicals.

RFCI used this admission to undercut the conclusions of the report--that "safe alternatives [to vinyl flooring] are available"--by pointing out that there's a big difference between the presence of a chemical and actual health risks, using the equation, RISK=HAZARD + EXPOSURE.

The point is that levels of exposure are a key part of the equation. For instance, take potassium. It is an essential molecule that the body must carry in certain amounts in order to function at the cellular level, yet in large doses potassium is toxic (it is used in chemical injection executions).

RFCI applied that logic to claim that The Ecology Center wrongfully implies that phthalates restricted from children's toys pose a threat in vinyl flooring, since children don't chew and suck on vinyl flooring for extended periods of time, as they do with toys.

Finally, RFCI pointed out that the 2% of vinyl samples where lead was detected, none appeared to have been manufactured domestically. In addition, the lead from several of those samples fell below the limit of what is allowed in children's toys. Also, RFCI claims that almost all of the products where cadmium was detected were produced outside of the U.S.


Glass-backed Vinyl Update
Glass-backed vinyl has long been the sheet vinyl of choice in Europe, and though it’s been sold in the U.S. for decades, only in the last few years has it been widely available to American consumers. All the big vinyl players now offer glass-backed sheet goods or some other form of loose-lay vinyl, but it was Tarkett that really led the movement with its FiberFloor line, which it began producing in Farnham, Quebec in 2004. All the other big players—Armstrong, Mannington and Congoleum—soon followed with their own glass-backed lines. 

Glass-backed goods offer a range of advantages that appeal to both consumers and retailers. For one, they offer more cushioning than traditional felt-backed products, so they’re more comfortable to stand or walk on, and they’re also quieter. They’re also technically loose-lay products, though most manufacturers only recommend installing them without adhesive for applications of 25 square yards or less. In general, most industry experts believe that about 60% of glass-backed floors are glued down and 40% are floated. 

Vinyl producers also claim that glass-backed vinyl holds the advantage over felt-backed goods in design as well; apparently, designs print more cleanly and crisply on glass-backed products. 

There are advantages for the dealer as well, not the least of which is higher average price points. But the product is more flexible, making it easier to handle and less likely to scuff up walls and baseboards during installation. And with the prevalence of pressure sensitive adhesive, installation itself goes much more smoothly. In addition, subfloor preparation is not as arduous as with traditional felt-backed goods because the product does not telegraph as easily.

One big difference between glass-backed and felt-backed sheet goods is that glass-backed floors don’t swell and shrink with changes in humidity and temperature, and this can impact how the flooring is installed. Glass-backed flooring installed over wood subfloors generally requires a full spread adhesive to stop it from buckling when the subfloor contracts.

Part of the reason for the product’s early adoption in Europe, which also used to be a felt-backed market, is that there are proportionally far fewer homes built of wood in Europe compared to the U.S., enabling Europeans to take advantage of the loose-lay installation technique, which is possibly glass-backed vinyl’s biggest advantage over felt-backed vinyl.

In the U.S., homes built on slab construction are most appropriate for loose-lay installation, giving dealers in slab construction markets like the South an additional selling tool.

While felt-backed products continue to enjoy a price point advantage, the gap between the two has narrowed with the introduction of lower priced glass-backed goods. However, the general trend is that felt-backed goods are more focused on lower price points while mid and upper price points are quickly becoming the exclusive domain of glass-backed vinyl. 

This year, there’s a game changer in the U.S. glass-backed market—IVC. In December, the Belgian firm completed its $75 million Dalton sheet vinyl facility and U.S. headquarters. The production crew is currently testing all of the machinery in preparation for beginning production by the end of this quarter. After that, it should take six months for IVC to shift all of its production from Belgium to the U.S.

At full capacity, the new facility will produce close to 360 million square feet of product a year, and that should be more than enough capacity for the next few years. With a current footprint of 550,000 square feet on a 24 acre site, IVC still has about half a million square feet in expansion capacity.

IVC also entered the commercial market last year with its Itec line of glass-backed sheet vinyl, which it refined over the course of the year, and that line has been expanded this year.

A new player worth watching in the vinyl flooring business is Shaw Industries, which last year acquired the North American distribution rights for LG’s vinyl flooring. Last month, the firm introduced its residential program of sheet goods and luxury vinyl sourced from a number of vinyl producers. 

The sheet line, DuraTru, is a cushioned, glass-backed line, and, like most glass-backed manufacturers, Shaw recommends the use of a full spread adhesive, along with loose-lay installations for installations of 25 square yards or less.

Tarkett’s FiberFloor line has been growing at a steady pace since it was introduced back in 2004. Last year, Tarkett’s glass-backed business surpassed its felt-backed sales for the first time, and this year the gap is expected to widen even more.

Most of Tarkett’s FiberFloor goes through the independent flooring retailer, and it also sells through Menards, the Midwestern home improvement chain.

Mannington’s Sobella line of glass-backed sheet goods enjoyed another year of double digit growth. Of its total residential sheet vinyl introductions this year, about two-thirds were Sobella products and the balance was in felt-backed. 

This year, Armstrong signaled its commitment to the glass-backed market with its largest sheet vinyl launch ever and it was all loose-lay; there were no new felt-backed introductions. The firm expanded its glass-backed line from 74 SKUs to 187 SKUs, and it condensed its felt-backed offering from 331 SKUs to only 188. The StrataMax loose-lay line was unchanged at 58 SKUs.

Last month, Armstrong launched Abode, a glass-backed sheet vinyl line for the light commercial market, in ten designs, including wood and stone looks, for a total of 26 SKUs.

Luxury Vinyl Update
Luxury vinyl has been taking marketshare from a number of flooring categories. On the commercial side, LVT has been taking a lot of share from VCT, most notably in the retail sector. Supermarkets, for instance, increasingly use LVT to create different environments for fresh produce or florist shops. For other retail environments from clothing stores to restaurants, luxury vinyl planks are going down instead of hardwood. Hardwood tends to fare poorly in such environments, where heavy traffic and moisture can damage both the appearance and performance of the flooring. However, luxury vinyl’s ability to reproduce wood looks, along with stone and ceramics, make it a reliable substitute. In fact, many specifiers and contract dealers believe that wood look luxury vinyl in the commercial market is better than the real thing.

For the same reason, luxury vinyl tile is often used when the look of stone or ceramic is desired but conditions or budgets prohibit their use. With today’s textured surfaces and high resolution designs combining for extremely convincing in register embossing, faux looks in luxury vinyl can fool even the most discerning eye.

Two other big commercial markets for luxury vinyl are healthcare and education. In healthcare, LVT competes directly with heterogeneous sheet goods, along with tile and wood, while in schools it goes up against VCT.

LVT INSTALLATION OPTIONS

With the new installation options on LVT, many dealers are in a quandary trying to figure out what type of product to carry. There are basically four types of installation: those that use full spread adhesive, which is the traditional system; those that use a click system like laminate flooring; those that use adhesives to connect to each other, edge to edge, for floating installations; and those that use grout. Grout is generally an additional installation process, with the tile already being installed through another system, usually full spread adhesive.

The process of choosing is that much more difficult because the two floating systems are fairly new to the category, and some manufacturers are themselves in the process of switching from traditional systems to floating systems.


On the residential side, LVT is certainly used instead of hardwood and ceramic, for many of the same reasons as in the commercial market, but the floorcovering category losing the most share to residential luxury vinyl is without a doubt laminate flooring.

In many ways, luxury vinyl takes all the attributes that put laminate flooring on the map and does the same or better. Convincing faux looks: LVT does them as good if not better than laminate. Textures: LVT does them better. Glueless floating floor systems: introduced through laminates, now adopted by luxury vinyl. That clacking sound when you walk on them: laminates. 

The only area where laminates have LVT beat is in price points. LVT’s assault on laminate’s share is essentially forcing laminate to take shelter in the lower price points, where LVT can’t reach it. This constitutes a real threat to the U.S. laminate industry, because if laminate is shut out from mid to high price points, it could develop into a full-fledged commodity category, much like the European market, which the U.S. market has worked so hard to avoid.

Amtico, the leading U.S. LVT producer, offers three product lines, two of which are luxury vinyls. The third is Stratica, the firm’s high-performance PVC-free product. The vast majority of Amtico’s business is in the commercial market.

Amtico reports that most of its growth has been in retail and healthcare, and in recent months the retail market has been surprisingly healthy, likely due to pent-up demand and the increasingly competitive atmosphere driving soft upgrades.

Mannington goes to both the residential and commercial markets—Adura is residential and Nature’s Path is commercial. The most recent addition to the tiered commercial program is Walkway, the firm’s mainstreet line introduced in 2009. It started as a wood look program but tile looks are now being added.

On the residential side, the Adura line is offered as either a gluedown product or, starting last summer, as a floating floor with a click system (developed in-house). That glueless system, LockSolid, has just been introduced on the commercial side.

Tarkett now has two distinct LVT brands—Nafco on the residential side and Centiva on the commercial side. Nafco is best known for its PermaStone line of tiles with a range of grout options. According to the firm, PermaStone’s taking share from ceramic, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast. 

At this year’s Surfaces, Nafco came out with a line of floating clickable luxury vinyl planks. Its click system, FreeSpan, comes from Välinge.

Centiva, which is operating as an independent entity within Tarkett, produces some of the most dazzling luxury vinyl in the commercial market. Though it offers faux looks, much of its reputation in the design community is the result of its unique designs, including several products that look like they were made from poured metals.

Centiva is strongest in healthcare and retail, and it also does well in corporate and hospitality, thanks to those strong designs. Last year the firm had solid growth and more of the same is expected this year.

At last year’s Surfaces, IVC introduced its Moduleo luxury vinyl as a gluedown product, and that line has been expanded at this year’s show. And later this year, the firm is coming out with luxury vinyl with a click system. The LVT also targets the mainstreet and specified light commercial market, and the new click system will come with a substantial warranty.

Armstrong just refreshed its Natural Creations commercial LVT line with three sub-lines: ArborArt, EarthCuts and Mystix. ArborArts features traditional wood looks, like oak; rustics, which include in-register embossing and some larger formats, low gloss levels; and a range of exotics. EarthCuts is the firm’s stone line, which has been expanded with a range of visuals including limestones, concretes and slates. Mystix, the designer line, includes metal and woven effects. Mystix includes Aria, which mimics carpet tile looks and has managed to find its way into the office market.

The new lines are part of Armstrong’s Design Continuum, which means that all the designs work together within the category, allowing for mixing and matching for a seamless design aesthetic.

Shaw’s LVT line, called Array, is available as a glue-down product, and it also comes as a floating floor with an edge adhesion system called StaTite using transitional pressure sensitive adhesive that ultimately forms a permanent bond. The firm also plans to introduce a higher end option of groutable tiles.

On the commercial side, Shaw is still tweaking LG’s original offering of luxury vinyl and both heterogeneous and homogeneous sheet goods. 

Copyright 2011 Floor Focus 



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