A call to arms: tile industry needs to join forces to protect and grow our market

I have been in this industry now for 35 years. I have been blessed to be part of a trade that has experienced significant growth and I’ve been honored to serve in a leadership role as the Executive Director of the National Tile Contractors Association for the past 18 years. 

When I first started in this industry, I worked for a tile retailer in Minneapolis, Minn. I remember talking with consumers about the benefits of ceramic tile and trying to convince them to consider our products in kitchens and dining rooms. They really were only used to seeing tile in bathrooms at the time. We have come a long way since then. Today, ceramic tile and natural stone tile comprise about 20% of all flooring sales, and despite the many challenges we continue to face from competitive products, our industry has continued to thrive. Technology has played a significant role in this growth. So has the simple fact that when installed correctly, our products are healthy for the environment and are proven to last and outperform their competitors over time. 

Despite these advantages, many industry leaders are highly concerned over recent trends by consumers to select alternative products, often in areas where ceramic tile has traditionally dominated. The rapid growth of plastic-based materials (PBM), including rigid core materials such as luxury vinyl tile (LVT), has many manufacturers, distributors and contractors worried. The tile industry is not alone in this concern, as the hardwood flooring and carpet industries are also losing sales to this category. The laminate industry has now ramped up efforts to improve its manufacturing processes, so you can expect to see a strong push from these manufacturers to grow their market at our expense. It is a competitive world and the flooring industry is not immune to this. So let’s take our gloves off and start fighting from a position of strength!

Through 2018, our industry was continuing to gain market share in flooring sales, but recent reports of tile consumption reported a 5 % decrease in the first quarter of 2019 as compared to 2018. There can be many factors contributing to this decrease, but there is no denying the fact that PBM products are growing in popularity, and that they have targeted our industry as being vulnerable for a variety of reasons. 

Stark discrepancies between product claims and reality

Many glowing performance-related claims being made by the manufacturers of these PBM products differ from what is actually covered by manufacturer warranties. At Coverings 2019, the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) revealed important information related to research they have conducted on the accuracy of such claims. (Go to https://bit.ly/32c52Og for results of this research). When you actually read the information included in product and manufacturer warranties, you will find stark discrepancies between what the marketing literature posits, myths people believe about these products, and what a company will actually stand behind with money. This is very important information to have in order to sell our products. 

I want to stress the word “sell” here. In my opinion, in order for our industry to sustain growth and to thrive in this competitive landscape, we must become much better at marketing, selling and installing our products than we have ever been in the past. 

Our industry needs to work together to accomplish this. Sales professionals in distribution and manufacturing have to be better trained on industry standards and must understand the unique differences that exist between the skills required to install ceramic tile compared to its competition. Without possessing this knowledge, salespeople can’t possibly help consumers to make good decisions when it comes to choosing ceramic tile as compared to other products. In my experience when untrained people sell our products to designers, architects, project owners and consumers, without a full understanding of our product or installation standards, it results in dissatisfaction and in many instances, job failures.

Job failures are not always solely the fault of the installation contractor. In fact, there are usually many factors that contribute to this dilemma, and we need to collectively work together to minimize this trend from continuing. Failures can result because of workmanship and lack of proper training by the installer – that is for sure. Failures can also occur because the proper materials and products were not selected in the first place, which can result in the customer’s expectations not being met. 

How product and installation standards benefit the consumer

Our industry has worked hard to develop product and installation standards. Many of our competitors haven’t done this, and it leaves them vulnerable if we take advantage of this opportunity. I can assure you that manufacturers in other industries view our work in standards development as a strength and are working to try to quickly follow suit. It is so important that we use this information to realistically set expectations, and to ensure that qualified and trained installers are selected to perform the installation. The biggest problem our industry faces is not the cost of a ceramic tile installation the first time. It is the cost of the replacement of a tile installation failure when it occurs. 

The tile industry must work harder than ever to instill consumer confidence in our products and in our ability to install them properly the first time. We have developed programs that can help us to achieve this. One of the most important initiatives we currently are promoting is industry certification. I am convinced we must certify and train more people than ever before, and a lot faster than we have done for the past decade. This is why the NTCA is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new training vehicles, in hiring additional trainers, and in supporting the efforts of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF). Many manufacturers and distributors have recognized this need as well and have made commitments to host training and certification programs, and provide support in the field with training and technical expertise. They have also made significant financial contributions that are necessary for us to expand our efforts to meet this glaring need. 

I am calling on everyone in the tile industry to commit to making this happen. To this end, I am chairing a panel discussion at Qualicer in Spain next year that will address these issues. We have witnessed firsthand how much of an impact we can make to this trade when manufacturers, distributors and installers work together in a collective effort. If each and every one of us that has a passion for our industry is willing to commit to this effort, we can not only survive in a competitive landscape, we will thrive in it. 

Bart Bettiga is the Executive Director of the National Tile Contractors Association and Publisher of TileLetter. Bettiga is a member of the Board of Governors of Coverings, one the largest tradeshows in North America. He has over 30 years of experience in the tile and stone industry and has served as the NTCA Executive Director since 2002. He is a well known speaker and author on ceramic tile and natural stone distribution and installation. He oversees the financial operations of the NTCA, TileLetter and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation.