Coming into 2018, many tile suppliers cited countertops as a key opportunity for the year ahead. According to Glenn Harry, general manager, stone and sales operation for Mohawk’s Dal-Tile Corporation, the U.S. countertop industry is estimated to be about $5 billion in sales annually, with roughly half coming from stone, quartz and a newer product known as gauged porcelain. While the sector is still in its early stages in the U.S., it’s definitely growing, and many suppliers are pointing to gauged porcelain tile — which the U.S. has recently started to embrace — as the reason.

While porcelain slab size increased almost five years ago, the slabs were too thin to be used on countertops without substantial reinforcement. More recently, porcelain slab thickness increased from 3mm to 12mm, with some products measuring up to ½-inch thick. The strength of these new gauged porcelain slabs paired with the limitless design possibilities available to porcelain is creating immense opportunity for suppliers in the countertop market.

Currently, the countertop market is dominated by quartz and natural stone, but Evan Nussbaum, vice president of product sourcing and training for Stone Source, predicts that’s about to change.

“The technical properties of porcelain make the surface undeniably appealing for the countertop market … that can compete directly with quartz, which had taken over most of the market share from granite in the last 20 years,” said Nussbaum.

And James Amendola, director of sales and marketing at Sapienstone, a porcelain countertop brand within the Fiandre group, agreed, stating that the main driver behind the expanding countertop market is “an increasing number of companies are introducing porcelain materials for countertops.”
Paulo Pereira, MSI’s senior merchant of porcelain product, explained that gauged porcelain is perfect for countertops because it has all the same properties as traditional porcelain tile — strength, stain resistance, ease of maintenance and stability. “Product training will play an important part in how fast the fabricators will adopt the porcelain slabs,” he added.

And moving forward, many suppliers believe installation will play a key role in the sector’s success. The product itself, being thin — and easier to carry into the installation area — yet resilient, lends itself to installation better than quartz or stone. However, Nussbaum added that there is still quite a bit of outreach and education needed. “But each day sees more traction than the day before, and it is only a matter of time before porcelain takes over more share in the countertop space,” he said.

Designs that sell
In terms of design, the countertop sector is seeing trends similar to tile, but now with porcelain coming to play the possibilities are skyrocketing.

Quartz and granite are leading the design sector of the market, but one of the benefits of gauged porcelain is that it can be customized to emulate any look the consumer wants. According to Vance Hunsucker, national sales manager for ceramic tile and stone with Shaw, “There’s no limit to the colors or visuals it can take on.”

Roy Viana, product director at Dal-Tile, said that natural quartzite is trending right now and marble visuals are making a resurgence. 

“Both consumers and architects and designers are looking for countertop solutions with superior aesthetics, including the beauty and depth of details of real marble and real stone, as well as higher durability and more competitive pricing,” said Fiandre’s Amendola.

Porcelain slabs also offer much more flexibility in aesthetics, as inkjet technology allows manufacturers to emulate the look the consumer desires, whether it’s a more natural motif or an intricate design.

According to Frank Douglas, vice president of business development at Crossville, natural stone visuals are, of course, always popular, but real stone can be rare and expensive, as well as impractical to use.

“Now … it’s possible to have the stone look you want and the performance your countertops require,” said Douglas. “For example, real Carrara marble is tender and prone to staining, while tile panels offer the realistic appearance in a material that will stand up to use for the long term.”

Some customers are even opting to put porcelain slabs over their existing countertops, and these new [porcelain] slabs can also be incorporated into other areas of the kitchen to produce a design theme, Shaw’s Hunsucker said. Porcelain backsplashes, cabinet end caps and flooring can be printed to match.

The printing process used to manufacture gauged porcelain also results in a “cleaner” visual because there are fewer seams, Hunsucker added.

Need-to-know
According to tile manufacturers, one of the most important pieces of information retailers will want to know coming into the countertop market is the difference between natural stone and porcelain options. 

Vance Hunsucker, national sales manager for ceramic tile and stone at Shaw, cited a variety of differences between the two options including the fact that porcelain is resistant to heat, easier to clean and does not need to be sealed. “It is 30 percent stronger than granite and other materials, and it resists chipping, cracking and scratching,” he said. “Porcelain’s longevity may offer customers a cost savings over time. Porcelain can be customized to emulate any look the consumer wants.” 

Stone Source’s Evan Nussbaum, vice president of product sourcing and training, agreed, adding that consumers need to know there is a new alternative to quartz for countertops that is coming into the market in a big way.

“Retailers will want to align themselves with distributors and fabricators who can supply quality and service, and who are already familiar with working the material,” said Nussbaum.

In the end, Frank Douglas, Crossville’s vice president of business development, pointed to education as the key to success for today’s retailers looking to find opportunity in the countertop business.

“They need to have the information to guide specifiers to make the right choices for the aesthetic and performance requirements of the projects at hand — including exterior installations,” said Douglas. “Tile panels are excellent for outdoor kitchen countertops, for example. Also, they need a fundamental understanding of how installation is managed to assure decision makers about the process as well as the product.”

Reprinted with the permission of Floor Covering Weekly—Feb. 26, 2018, pages 6 and 8