Rigid vinyl plank is taking over a large share of the flooring market, and not everyone is in agreement that it’s the best thing for the independent retailer. Marge Kehrer Flamme has been in flooring since the 90s, holding positions with major manufacturers and distributors and as a former retail store owner of Old Town Flooring in Tustin, Calif. Today, she is the San Diego regional sales manager for Ark Floors, a manufacturer of solid and engineered hardwood and moldings. We connected with Flamme recently to learn how rigid vinyl plank is affecting wood sales among retailers.

FT: What’s going on with flooring in your market?

Flamme: In southern California, the retail business is way off, and what’s being sold is rigid vinyl plank. I don’t know if business is off because Floor & Décor has taken a big bite out of a lot of people or if it is the internet. It can’t be that that much flooring is being sold on the internet—it’s big, bulky and not an easy thing to do, and you have to manage installation.

In our market, it’s a densely populated area where everybody has somebody—a friend, a brother, an uncle—who is handy and they think they can install vinyl plank flooring, unlike tile or wood, which require more skill to install. They see shows on HGTV that make it look simple.

FT: How is vinyl impacting retail sales?

Flamme: Vinyl is impacting the business a lot. When I go into flooring stores and listen, nine times out of 10, the customer who comes in says they would like to see the waterproof flooring. The retail sales people at that point have no choice but to show them vinyl plank.

When I was working at Old Town Flooring, I would ask them, “What do you know about waterproof and why do you think you need a waterproof floor?” I reminded them that floors like laminate and wood can certainly withstand water spills. They are concerned that they have kids and dogs that spill stuff all the time, and they don’t want to worry about the floor. I would point out that you don’t have to worry about that with wood or laminate either—you don’t have to go to a vinyl plank. As much as we know that vinyl is a fine product, I question whatever happened to the green movement? Vinyl is plastic. What’s going to happen down the road with all of these plastic floors?

FT: Isn’t vinyl being marketed as the better version of wood?

Flamme: About 10 minutes ago, porcelain plank that looked like wood was the hot thing and vinyl killed that because porcelain is more expensive than wood and you generally have to pay to install it.

I ask customers, “Why do they want to buy a replica of wood when they can have the real thing?” We can educate them that wood is better for the environment. It can be recycled in the future. It will add value to your home. Can you imagine someone 20 years from now excitedly bragging that they discovered the original vinyl plank under the carpet in their new home? People still like to discover original wood under old carpet. That won’t happen 20 years from now with vinyl.

FT: How is this playing out on the sales floor?

Flamme: I overheard a story in Solana Beach, Calif., which is a high-end area, and the store was mostly filled with vinyl plank. An older couple, in their 60s, parked their Mercedes and came into the store. They dressed well and wore expensive jewelry. The husband took laps around the store while the wife asked the sales person about updating the flooring in their condo. She said, “We want wood upstairs, downstairs, and a carpet runner on the stairs.” The young salesperson said, “Let me show you something a lot better than wood,” and he walked the woman over to the waterproof vinyl flooring. The husband gave the wife the signal and the couple left the store. The young man didn’t listen when the woman said they wanted to buy wood. He told me that he was supposed to sell what they had in stock, which was vinyl. The store lost a nice sale. Vinyl plank is taking over the sale of wood everywhere. The good news is that we have wood that is competitively priced, and we can remind consumers about its benefits.

FT: One of the selling points of waterproof vinyl is that it’s durable in hurricane and flood situations.

Flamme: My brother-in-law is an insurance agent. We found that despite the fact that these floors are being sold as waterproof, when insurance companies look at situations like floors, they end up ripping out vinyl floors and replacing them. They won’t take the risk, at least not in California, for the potential for mold and mildew. They still rip out the floors and throw them away.

For more information, visit www.ark-floors.com.