Cork, at the risk of stating the obvious, is a versatile flooring material. Not only is it a naturally sustainable resource -- a key selling point as the green movement builds steam -- it also can be incorporated into flooring applications in multiple ways.
Cork can be sold as glue-down tile; as an interlocking, glueless floating floor; or in sheets. It's available prefinished with a polyurethane coating or unfinished, which requires regular waxing. Cork fragments are often incorporated into vinyl and rubber flooring by the manufacturer to add increased slip-resistance. And cork is also available as an underlayment, used particularly in high-rise structures where building codes require strict sound-absorption properties.
Susan Maness, general manager of the cork division for Linoleum City in Los Angeles, says that many of her cork customers can be broken into three groups: those who are "environmentally motivated people;" those who have had cork flooring in the past; and those who first discover it when they walk into the store. Linoleum City has kept cork in its inventory for the past 35 years. Among its stock is Nova Cork flooring, cork underlayment and cork sheets.
"Most of the floating floors have a polyurethane finish on them," she continues. "With that, you simply spritz it with a hardwood floor cleaner and dry mop, or spot clean. Glue-down tiles are cleaned the same away, but they're more difficult to install."
Maness chalks up cork's heightened profile among consumers to "environmental awareness and advertising, and a whole new generation thinking it's a new product, so you're seeing more people interested in cork."
Kathy Woodward, marketing coordinator for Longleaf Lumber in Somerville, Mass., says her store has been selling cork, including offerings from WECork, for about five years.
"I think people who are looking at cork are looking for something a little bit different," she explains. "They've moved into an older home with cork in it or they're renovating, and they want cork flooring again -- particularly in their kitchens, because it's soft on their knees."
She says the sales of cork flooring for tiles and planks are about even, because "tile is visually a familiar shape to us -- you can have a lot of patterns and different shades, but there are limitations. If you don't really have a smooth subfloor, or you want to install the floor yourself, it's better to go with a floating floor, which you can click together."
Joel Shreier, president and owner of Home Carpet One in Chicago, says that his customers like cork's "resiliency, its nature features, its softness, sound absorption, and the fact that it's a renewable resource. In Chicago, the underlayment is also a great option for high rises."
Shreier's Carpet One store has sold cork (including Expanko's line of flooring) for the last five years, and he has seen an increased interest "absolutely in the last 12 months."
He adds, "We've had a lot of traffic, people looking specifically for cork. They've looked at the product Web site and now come in looking for the product. Most of the people who buy cork or bamboo -- the niche products -- came in looking for it. People who have bought cork in the past continue to buy cork. It's a real growth area for us."
Matthew Trofa, vice president of Admiral Design Carpet One in Norristown, Pa., agrees that cork is very much a nice product. He's been stocking cork from a variety of companies, including Wicanders, for the past six years. He's noticed an uptick in sales, and thinks cork will continue to rise in popularity among consumers.
"Something that's easily renewable, like cork," he says, "will keep gaining popularity in the years to come."
He says, from the dealer's side, that he's disappointed by the lack of available education and programs from manufacturers, and the fact that there isn't a consistent, industry-wide standard for manufacturing cork flooring.
"Manufacturers of cork are so focused on the commercial market that whatever residential business they're getting is by accident," Capobianco says. "They appreciate the business but, for residential dealers, you really have to work to get any information about cork."
Capobianco describes cork as "a wonderfully interesting, dynamic, natural product with a great history behind it. It's a really cool product that I'm dying to sell. But it's hard to sell. Not only for the lack of information, but another challenge is that cork is not a stock product for most distributors, so it's hard to come up with a price quote for freight."
He says the cork program he has started at Fred's Carpet is a mix and match of products across several different companies (including Ceres Cork Flooring), because not one manufacturer produces the flooring in the same way.
"Cork is a wonderful, great product but it's so piecemeal the way that manufactures are handling it," Capobianco says. "It's a very inconsistent type of product line so it becomes harder to learn it. If somebody would just produce a product, a consistent system and a way of delivering the product to residential and Main Street commercial dealers, cork would really sell."
Capobianco disagrees that cork is seeing a major resurgence. "Even though everybody talks about the resurgence of cork," he says, "it's not quite caught on yet in the flooring industry. Nobody's really out there pushing it to guys like me. Cork is more known by designers than it is by the industry.
"I came back to retail with cork being one of those things I wanted to sell," he says. "But I had to make my own program because nobody has all the pieces I need."