High End Resilient: LVT is finding a place in some upper-end homes - October 2022
By Jennifer Bardoner
On the path to replace carpet as the top flooring product in terms of revenues, rigid LVT has become the darling of the residential market and has even begun making its way into upper-end homes, displacing more traditional flooring options. More of an evolution than a trend at the higher end of the market, LVT’s time and traction in the general market mean more people are now comfortable with it and aware of its attributes. Meanwhile, manufacturers have continuously pushed the envelope to enhance the product and its visuals. “The longer it’s around, the more people find out about it, and the longer it’s around, the better it gets,” says Susan Hadinger, CEO of Hadinger Company of Naples (Florida), a member of the National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA).
LVT IN THE HIGH-END MARKET
Bob Dolan, vice president of global sourcing for Avalon Flooring, which has a strong position in the medium to high end of the market, says, “Vinyl sales have exploded in recent years due to a combination of the waterproof story, performance for active lifestyles and ever-improving visuals.” But while LVT is making its way into more expensive residences, natural options are still often the preferred choice. “The really upper-end houses still do go with the real stuff-wood,” Hadinger says, explaining that such customers in her market are gravitating toward hardwood over ceramic. She and Dolan both estimate that resilient comprises roughly 25% of wealthy customers’ flooring purchases, but Dolan counts ceramic along with hardwood as the other top choices, which represent the bulk of wealthy customers’ purchases for the 17-store New England chain.
“There are still many affluent customers who will only want hardwood, tile or carpet, but times have changed to where vinyl is now in the conversation, where ten years ago it may not have been,” he says. “I think active lifestyles, ease of cleaning, etc., continue to show why resilient products have a growing place in our homes.”
Hadinger also notes, “The way the housing market is going right now, expensive homes might not have been expensive a year ago.” (For the purpose of this article, we focused on homes in the $600,000+ range.)
Often called the aspirational flooring choice, hardwood has the cachet of being one-of-a-kind, and most homeowners, especially affluent ones, pride themselves on having something unique. “The visuals are there [with resilient]; they’ve achieved that, but how do you describe the floor?” says Jason McSwain, president of McSwain Carpet and Floors’ network of stores in Ohio and northern Kentucky, a fellow NFA member. “If you’re trying to outdo your neighbor, you don’t want to say, ‘Hey, come look at my vinyl floor.’”
Carpet is still the main seller at his stores, accounting for roughly 65% of sales, trailed by hardwood and resilient at 15% each, with ceramic and commercial work making up the final 5%.
“I have a lot of friends down here who are realtors, and they are like, ‘It’s plastic. You can’t put plastic in these houses,’” Hadinger says. “So there is that perception, but it’s happening; it’s going in these homes.” And it’s not just in entryways or bathrooms, she notes. “Nothing surprises me any longer with where resilient products are placed in the home,” Dolan adds.
MAIN SELLING POINTS
LVT’s general performance attributes make it an attractive option for today’s families, and affluent ones are no different. “With today’s busy lifestyles, all customers are looking for high-style floors that are easy to maintain,” says Dolan. “Today’s resilient floors fit those requirements. Affluent customers consider all their options, but they still require a product that will support an active lifestyle.”
While there is a perception that retail sales associates (RSAs) simply steer customers toward LVT as the latest and greatest product, our sources say that’s not true in their stores. McSwain says customers sometimes come in looking for LVT due to associated hype words like “waterproof” or it being popularized on home renovation shows, but more often-and regardless of whether a customer was specifically seeking LVT, our sources agree-it’s determined to be the best choice, or not, through a lifestyle assessment. “If a wood application fits better, we don’t shy at all from moving them from resilient to wood,” says McSwain, whose business started as a sand-and-finish enterprise. “The easy answer is to just take them to a pallet of LVT that came in, but is that the best for them? We’re not being true to our brand if we haven’t talked through it and tried to learn.”
For example, hardwood is likely a more appropriate choice for a historic home, not only for period character but also because of height requirements due to moldings and door jambs; while LVT might be the best choice in a home with elderly people who could easily trip over transitions, or in a home with a lot of pets. But even in the case of the latter, he cautions, “You don’t need a waterproof floor in your entire ranch floorplan for one messy dog bowl in the corner that’s never going to move. ‘Waterproof’ tends to be the introduction, it doesn’t end up being the final decision.”
Still, Hadinger says LVT’s waterproof and dent-resistant surface (at least compared to hardwood) is the primary purchase driver in terms of performance, noting that premium offerings are now comparable to the cost of hardwood. Dolan agrees that “premium LVT has reached the price of a lot of hardwood flooring, and the same for tile.” In her market, the waterproof aspect is especially important in light of the beachy environment. “If they’re looking for LVT, they either want the waterproof aspect of it or they have a house full of dated travertine that they don’t want to remove, so LVT is a good option for going over that,” she says.
While LVT holds an advantage over ceramic and hardwood in terms of the ease and therefore speed of a renovation, the related DIY aspect is not relevant to affluent homeowners. Additionally, installation itself is not a major consideration since lead times between hardwood and LVT are about equal and cost is not as critical a factor, our sources note.
Manufacturers often segment their displays to highlight premium offerings and the enhanced attributes they encompass, which are final determinants as the RSAs help narrow the pool of ideal options, but the visuals are what really sell a product, especially, says McSwain, at higher price points. “The visual and the marketing behind the visual-especially when a decorator is involved-that is the deciding factor.” He says he’s had a lot of luck with Karastan because of the unique marketing approach that highlights the inspiration for the design, like a weathered barn in Scotland. “Designers have gravitated toward that,” he says. “They think it’s unique and exciting.” He also lists Coretec as a brand that has done a good job replicating natural visuals and is therefore popular with affluent customers.
“If they like it and it looks good, they’re going with it,” says Hadinger. “I think a lot of LVT has more realistic visuals, so there are those customers that maybe didn’t consider LVT, but they come in and like it and are willing to consider it.”
The addition of room scenes and visualization tools on displays has further increased customers’ acceptance of LVT. “The consumers just want a product that will look beautiful, something they can be proud of and that will perform great based on its use,” says Dolan. “I think the affluent customer has a larger product offering to select from because of having a more flexible budget. However, an affluent customer expects a premium look along with a product that will perform.”
Hadinger says WPC is preferred over SPC at the higher end, noting that WPC is typically softer and warmer underfoot. Cheaper and easier to manufacture, SPC accounts for the majority of overall market units, while WPC is a more premium product with enhanced construction and attributes. “I think the perception is that WPC has a little bit better visual,” she says, “though SPC has definitely come a long way.”
Following the general market trend, wood visuals are the most popular. “Non-wood visuals are about 10% of the offering and less than 5% of our sales,” says Dolan. “Non-wood looks, such as tile looks, tend to be smaller jobs since they are likely to be installed in kitchens, foyers or bathrooms. Our market isn’t one where a whole house will have tile installed throughout.” Though homes in her area have traditionally leaned toward ceramic, Hadinger says LVT is now the preferred “whole-house product.” “Everybody is looking for the wood visual,” she says.
In her market, the aesthetic that is tracking is “very light, very uniform, clean, and no bevel,” she says, explaining that bevels help support the clean, uniform look. “Our customers have been gravitating back toward the microbevel and away from the really pronounced bevel. They do not want the painted bevel that looks like a grout line.” Long, wide planks are as popular in LVT as in wood.
In terms of color-and “ultimately, everything is a matter of color,” Hadinger notes-the pandemic has ushered in a return to warmer tones. “Beige is kind of back,” she says. “Just straight grey is not super-popular anymore, but it’s still here.” McSwain says that most of those preferences hold true in the Midwest as well, though the colors tend to be richer.
In keeping with the general market trend toward mechanically locking rigid LVT, it accounts for the vast majority of resilient sales among upper-end clients. “By now, most customers know someone who has purchased a SPC/WPC floor and have heard great things about them,” Dolan explains. “The rest of the category-sheet, gluedown LVT, etc.-nowadays makes up less than 20% of our vinyl business.”
The sources we spoke with allude to the benefit of keeping inventory focused so that RSAs can be extremely knowledgeable about all of the products on the floor, which tend to be those with wider appeal. “Sometimes it is as simple as comfort in that they have had those products before,” Dolan says. “Sometimes they want a one-piece floor, so they opt for sheet vinyl. Sometimes they want a greener product like cork. All in all, those products continue to decline for us but will likely also always be a part of our offering for the aforementioned reasons.”
Sheet is one of those tried-and-true products most homeowners are familiar with, and McSwain says affluent ones in his market aren’t averse. Though he sells more LVT than sheet, “sheet’s not dead,” he says, explaining that most of the rigid LVT options, especially at the high end, weren’t available the last time those homeowners likely shopped for flooring. And, he notes, “Fifteen to 20 years ago, if [customers] didn’t have a great Pergo experience, it’s hard to separate the plank experience from what they had in the past. In that price point, you still would have, at least in our market, more affluent customers who might have a bias toward plank versus resilient sheet. If they’re not going ceramic and if they’re in that resilient category, there are many customers that, as long as the visual is there, the Mannington sheet product works very well for them.”
He cites Mannington’s Adura Selling Solution as an effective sales tool, pointing to the visualization tools as well as the premium product attributes and enhanced design. “With their luxe sheet display, it’s really easy for the customer to use,” he says, noting that the system uses color preference as the primary filter. “The patterns are current and exciting,” he adds. “Once that is accomplished, then they can work back through the performance levels they need for their household.” Sheet can be made hypoallergenic and free of harmful chemicals, and is an ultimate waterproof solution thanks to its minimal seams.
In terms of the related visuals, McSwain says the preferred patterns are getting bolder. “In the past, that big step to bold was a real gamble,” he says, referencing the impact of today’s visualization tools.
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