While it seems unlikely that sales of residential cork will eclipse commercial sales, it's clear the rules have changed. Manufacturers say that as consumers warm up to the category, style is becoming a top priority.
To connect with residential consumers, manufacturers are now touting cork's design and lifestyle benefits first and its technical characteristics second, says Paulo Nogueira, managing director of Amorim Flooring N.A., maker of the Wicanders brand. He adds that the new-found visibility feeds on itself: As cork gains popularity in the home, it inevitably becomes more widely recognized, and that in turn leads to more sales for the category.
"Cork's growth is at an explosive stage," Nogueira says. "The retail and distribution channels of the industry are seeing more of the product available than two years ago. If you compare these numbers to those from five years ago, there's an even bigger difference."
With the emergence of residential cork, flooring designers have been busy cranking out new colors and formats geared to a new audience: the style-conscious consumer. "You don't see only the natural brown color of cork on the floor anymore," says Nogueira. "There are different shades, different colors and different designs available that weren't there before. The product has really evolved."
It is hoped that the new designs will bring cork to an even broader consumer base. "The product is, in terms of design and technology, advanced enough to outgrow its niche," notes Nogueira. "The new designs are in line with the fashions of the moment, with colors and looks that fit into what people want to display in their homes. I think it's that fashion sense, along with increased availability, that is the main driver of cork sales today."
Another way to open up the residential market-and still hold on to the bread and butter commercial projects as well-is to offer custom cork flooring jobs, according to Expanko's marketing director, Margaret Buccholz. Custom sizes, unique colors and designs unavailable elsewhere are being used to lure interest. At NeoCon this year, for example, Expanko rolled out an ambitious custom cork program, showcasing archived patterns hearkening back to the company's product portfolio from decades ago.
Also, in an effort to trim turnaround time on a project, Expanko operates its own cutting and finishing line in the United States. Rough-cut cork sheets (measuring about 26-by-38 inches) are shipped to the factory from bulk cork processed at locations in Europe and the Mediterranean. At the U.S. factory the sheets are then cut down to 12-by-12- and 24-by-24-inch glue-down tiles, floating floor planks, or other shapes as needed for a given job. These products are even finished at the factory with polyurethane coats, helping to speed the process from conception to completion, Buccholz says.
"People are doing really interesting things with custom cork," notes Buccholz. "We're getting requests for a lot of interesting patterns, shapes and sizes. The look is a completely different look from the past. It works for residential installations and commercial as well."
While Expanko still produces and sells engineered veneer cork products, Buccholz says the company is becoming more aggressive about commercial sales of its homogeneous cork flooring. Engineered veneer offerings are made of surface layers of cork bark laminated to a cork base. While the product shows off more of the cork's natural character, making it a favorite of designers, the disadvantage is that an engineered floor cannot be sanded down and refinished without ruining the look of the installation. Homogeneous cork on the other hand showcases a look that can be sanded down without losing the floor's natural appearance, Buccholz says.
"We're trying to educate the designer on the options available," Buccholz says. "We see veneer cork installed in places it shouldn't be. If a designer is looking to install at a library, a church or a corporate headquarters, for example, we try to sell them on the advantages of homogeneous cork flooring."
This new focus on homogeneous flooring is an example of Expanko's willingness to expand into new avenues, Buccholz says, and adds that it's the industry's desire to try new things in the manufacture and selling of cork that has brought the category such success. "Five years ago, we wouldn't have restaurant owners on the top of the list of people looking to use cork flooring," she explains. "Cork is going in many new places."
Cork is also going to new places in a decorative sense. Designers note that the darker, more dramatic looks emerging are a good fit in rooms with darker furniture. The president of WE Cork, Ann Wicander says that such solid darker flooring styles have driven sales over the last year. And when she says dark, she means dark. "We're talking almost black," she says.
Then there is the versatility of cork. The deep-hued colors are being used exclusively or in combinations with other products as accents. "The dark-stained flooring was previously used almost exclusively as an accent color or for a small area of flooring, and accounted for less than 10 percent of sales," Wicander says. "Now we're seeing jobs that use more of that particular flooring. Our sales of it have grown 3 to 4 percent."
She says that the residential side of the business also shows a heightened interest in new stains and darker styles, though they don't skew as dark as the commercial side. "People are going more toward earthy colors," she says of the flooring. "They like the new colors of stains we're introducing."
While cork tile is still the dominant seller, Wicander notes that consumers are gravitating toward cork strip flooring with glueless click installations, another expansion of style. "People who want the cork feel underfoot but with a wood look are going for planks," Wicander says.