Publication Info.

What Every Retail Floor Covering Store Should Know About Ceramic Tile, But Was Afraid to Ask

Presented by Robert E. Daniels, Executive Director Emeritus
(Updated Spetemer 2005)

Are you in the retail floor covering sales business? Have you thought about selling ceramic tile but were hesitant? Customers visit your store to select finishing materials for their home. Why let them escape to another venue to select their ceramic products?

Perhaps the tile industry looks different to you if you've been used to selling carpeting and sheet goods. There are some reasons. The products you've been selling have been likely made in the US by a handful of producers. With ceramic tile there are thousands of producers all over the world vying for your business. That's one reason that you are attending Coverings.

There are many products on the market. All of them are not suitable for all applications and a simple rating system like the PAR rating for carpets is not practical. Let me provide some guidance for you to consider about this marketplace.

I. Why should you sell ceramic tile?

Simply put, it is a hot product. Sales have increased by double digits for four of the past five years. Total market growth has been 75% in those years and is forecast to continue at a strong rate for the next five years. Tile has an inherently high profit margin. The value of tile can be effectively marketed to the consumer and you can escape the cost-cutting frenzy found in other categories. Tile is very popular and has doubled its share of the building products market in the past ten years.

II. Why is it popular?

Ceramic tile has many advantages. It is available in a multitude of colors, shapes, sizes, textures, glosses, and features. This variety lends itself to an unlimited spectrum of design possibilities. Many tiles are now available in "modular sizes" that is they have grout joints that line up with various sized tiles. It is also a great value. Ceramic tile has never been cheaper since World War II without even adjusting for inflation.

Tile will last for a long time. Whenever I'm asked about the product life I say: "Properly selected and installed, tile will last as long as you want it, or the structure it's attached to falls down." Proof is there in the ancient ruins of Egypt, Pompeii, and other places in the Middle East.

It goes anywhere. But here it is necessary to qualify that statement. It can be used on floors, walls, countertops, ceilings, pools, tubs, showers, outside walls, even moving surfaces as found in motorhomes and boats can be tiled. But the tile must be properly selected and it must be properly installed. Substrate selection and preparation are important.

Tile is easy to clean and this appeals to today's consumer who is very busy after working all-day and running a household. We recommend using only the mildest cleaning products that are pH neutral to clean tile. With the exception of porous, unglazed and unsealed tiles, cleaning is simple. But usually when the TCNA gets calls about difficulty in cleaning tiles, it is the grout that is dirty. One important point to remember is that wet areas such as showers and tubs must have tile installed in a way that allows that water to drain from the system and not be trapped behind the tile. Water can penetrate into the smallest crevices such as the grout joints. This moisture must have a way to escape or eventually failure will occur in the tile work.

Tile protects the environment. Most tile factories today are energy efficient. There is little or no waste discharge through recycling techniques. Even scrap tiles can be recycled into new production and technology is being devolved to use scrap glass and municipal waste. But more than this, tile is made from naturally occurring minerals that are extremely abundant. There is no shortage of clay in this world. And tile lasts a long time unlike other materials that are ripped out every 7 years and hauled to the landfill. Tile can last for centuries.

III. How should you sell tile?

Now that I have perhaps persuaded you to sell tile, you will want to know how to sell tile. First of all, the secret to most success in life is to learn as much as you can about the subject. Read books and go to any schools or seminars that you can. Attending sessions at Coverings is a great way to jump-start your knowledge.

Show it effectively. This suggestion cannot be new to anyone in the industry but it is very important. Consumers need to visualize what can be done with tile. There are so many choices and potential applications that consumer selection of the product is complicated. Make it as easy as you can for them to picture the product in their home. Three-dimensional vignettes are the method of choice. Small sample boards sitting in the corner getting dusty are not effective. However you can devote a lot of showroom space showing tile so the choices to present must be carefully selected. Large-sized color photographs of installations are a great adjunct to the vignettes. Knowledgeable showroom personnel are key.

Make sure that you and your salespeople understand the types of tile and installation products available on the market and that proper selection of these materials is made. A complete lesson on tile is not possible in this session but don't sell wall tile for floors or areas exposed to freezing. Use proper wear ratings for areas exposed to traffic. A simple chart is attached to this paper to use as a guide for consumer selection. Make sure that adhesives and grouts are properly selected for the type of tile, surface to receive the installation, and expected use. Above all don't oversell the product. This falls in the category of saying sure you can put tile on oriented strand board over 24 inch on center joists with 24 feet spans. Telling consumers to go ahead and do it anyway regardless of the conditions will lead to job failure, chargebacks, rework, and other nasty things. We recommend that the installers read the instructions and standards for the industry although it's not as much fun as putting together all those children's toys without instructions.

The industry standards will help to guide you towards proper recommendations. Certain construction techniques and building materials are either not compatible with ceramic tile or require additional attention to detail. Deflection of the substrate (the surface to which the tile is bonded) must be less than L/360. This simple statement means that any span or section of span must not deflect with the expected static and dynamic loads more then the length of the span (L) divided by 360. Static loads are furniture, cabinets, appliances and other normally not moving objects while dynamic loads include people, dogs, flamenco dancers, moving objects, etc.

There are three main categories of tile work failures that we hear from the field. This is not a lesson in tile installation per se but these big three are worth mentioning. The first is the deflection mentioned above and this is rectified by adding strength to the system such as a second sheet of plywood. Second, is the lack of coverage of adhesive. The standards require at least 80% of the tile in dry areas, on an average, be covered by adhesive and bonded with no voids (air trapped beneath the tile). In wet areas such as showers and tubs, the requirement is for 95% coverage. You should note that this is harder to do with larger tiles and has become a greater problem recently. Tiles greater than 8X8 inches need to have the trapped air released from underneath. Third, there must be an allowance for movement. Using soft joints (caulk) instead of hard grout in the required places does this. These places include intersecting planes (walls and floors for example), between dissimilar materials (fiberglass, metal, wood floors, etc.), and in large areas of tile (this varies with the potential changes in the ambient temperature). Simply put, buildings move and materials expand and contract with temperature, moisture, wind load, and other factors and allowances must be made for this movement.

IV. The Challenges

You need a source of supply. In our industry this is typically an independent or factory-owned wholesale distributor or importer. The vast array of tiles available makes it very difficult for the retailer to stock many styles. A nearby responsive distributor is there to solve this problem. They will stock a multitude of items and be at the ready to ship them to you rapidly.

As you get a feel of your market, it may be feasible to stock certain tiles. However be prepared with tile to have to supply trim shapes. There are thirteen trim shapes defined in the industry standards for floor tile alone. All may not be available in every type of tile, but you can get an idea of the stocking units that may be required. There are support products required to properly sell tile including many types of adhesives, grouts in all colors, membranes, leveling compounds, tools, etc. Although this can create a need to build inventory they are generally higher margin sales. Don't force your customer to go down the street for some of the items they need. They may not come back.

Most of your customers will not install their own tile even if they select it and buy it. Then they will ask you the big question: "Who can I get to install this tile?" This maybe a tougher question than you think. One answer to have your own staff of installers. This has its own set of requirements and you will have to decide what is best for you. Most stores rely on independent installers or contractors. You need to build relationships with those you can trust, those that use proper methods and are reliable. As in other building trades the number of people entering this field is inadequate to support the industry growth and the attrition due to aging, changing fields of work, etc. You may find this to be a challenge. However we are finding that many floor covering stores have had success by sending their current installers to a school such as the industry sponsored Ceramic Tile Education Foundation.

V. Resources

Now that you have been snowed with information, but still want to gain confidence with the product, what should you do? Use the help that has been available for many years in our industry.

The Tile Council of North America (TCNA) has been publishing their Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation for 39 years. This industry consensus publication shows the tried and true details for tile installation. It does not cover every situation and is not a do-it-yourself instruction book. However we find that by following the methods, the possibility of failures is reduced. This does not mean that other methods will fail but the person doing things their own way by designing their own system is taking a big chance.

The TCNA also publishes the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for ceramic tile and for the installation of tile. These are critical documents for you to obtain, read, and use. Many architects rely on these standards for their specifications. As always, local practices and building codes prevail over these standards.

The TCNA has been answering field questions for a number of years. Each year we get thousands of calls about tile, cleaning, installation, product testing, etc. The worst calls are those where someone asks: "Can I do this…?" When we say probably not, there is a long pregnant pause. This is usually followed by; "Well I already did it. What can I do to fix it." It is better to plan first, read the instructions, follow the industry guidelines, and then ask if you need to, but before you set the tile. Tile tear-outs are very costly because it is hard to get tile out without damaging the substrate. The cost of a tear-out and replace is much higher than two times the original job cost.

There are many industry organizations that will help you. You need to join the appropriate ones. Most organizations have training and communication programs that can help. They provide industry news, statistics, and networking. Running a business without joining an appropriate organization is like flying an airplane without instruments. For a small investment in time and money you can reap great rewards.

And last, but not least there is a major resource available to you, the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation. This is an independent training resource that can provide you and your people with all the knowledge that you need. It offers classes both at its headquarters in Clemson and at various sites around the country. It teaches all phases of ceramic tile from the product standards through the more complicated installation methods.

VI. Conclusion

Ceramic tile offers a great opportunity for you to make more money. You need to make sure that you understand it, how to sell it, and how to service your customers before you jump in. And you need to market the product. Show it, explain it, and sell it.