Cork flooring may be popping up in some places like tiny bubbles shimmering up a champagne flute, but is it time for manufacturers in the category to pop open a bottle and celebrate? That depends on who you ask and where they are located.
Depending on the region, sales of cork flooring may be either skyrocketing or sluggish. Manufacturers say that overall sales of the category are growing respectably if not dramatically. They note that technological and aesthetic advancements including enhanced wearlayers, easy-to-use glueless click installation systems and a bevy of designer colors have helped make the product more versatile, and far more appealing to consumers.
Retailers, though, paint a slightly different picture. Despite the undeniable advances seen in the category, cork remains a niche product. Also, while cork sales are booming along the East and West Coasts, they remain relatively flat in the Midwest. And even in areas where cork sales have popped, the product still lags far behind the industry's top sellers.
Yet while there is no clear consensus on cork's position in the market, there is wide agreement among retailers on why it appeals to consumers. They say it is a floor that is prized for its traditional look and feel. And consumers are choosing with their feet: putting cork in areas where utility and durability are the primary considerations-such as kitchens, basements and recreation rooms.
"We are having tremendous success and I think part of that is because there is a lot of press out there talking about cork as a renewable resource," says Bob Sawyer, Northeast sales manager for Amorim flooring brand Wicanders. "That's having a big impact on consumers. They're coming into the store actively looking for the flooring."
He notes that Wicanders has also worked to build a superior product pipeline that is designed to bring cork to consumers in a more efficient manner. "We have most of the U.S. and Canada covered with good distribution, warehousing and business networks," Sawyer says. Previously, shipments originating from Amorim's headquarters in Portugal would take more than a month to reach their destination.
At Bishop's Carpet One in Ithaca, N.Y., the wide availability of cork products is paying off. Sales of Wicanders products are up this year, says Steve Whittier a sales rep at the store. "We've been selling cork for about 10 years, and we've definitely seen an increase this year," he says. "The green building movement has really helped sales take off."
But at Kowalski Design Studios inWaukesha, Wis., sales are just so-so. "A lot of people out here don't know quite what to make of cork flooring," says Dave Hoffman, a designer for the studio. "They have the misconception that it's going to be too soft and too fragile. But if they have an open mind, they might try it out."
Peter Pino, operations director of APC Cork, says that cork flooring is being purchased by both baby boomers looking for a nostalgic fix and younger generations as well. But, he adds, cork "is definitely a niche product."
"Cork has a price range comparable to the better laminates and the medium range of woods," he says. "If the customer has done the research, she'll come in and say ‘I want cork.' But if she comes into the store with a different type of flooring in mind, she probably isn't going to make the switch. Unless you really hit a nerve with her, it's going to be hard to change her mind."
Laura Mack, a sales representative for Dawson's Floor Fashions in Placerville, Calif., says she also finds cork sales slow. "We have a lot of green enthusiasts up here, and cork is a proven product for us," she says. "But we haven't done as much sales with it as we first thought we would. People are definitely interested in it, though."
The president of WE Cork, Ann Wicander notes that cork flooring manufacturers are not sitting idly. They are actively growing consumer awareness (and interest) by rolling out more designer-friendly flooring options. For its part, WE Cork has launched several new eye-catching patterns for both residential and commercial settings. "The classic ‘corkboard' look is still a mainstay, but I feel it's starting to lose ground to our new designs and patterns," she says. "Based on our sales, these new designs are outselling the traditional look."
Kit Odom, owner of SoCo Design in Austin, says that sales at her store are up 30 percent in the past year, a feat at least partly due to the new designs. "We've gone from the real traditional stuff to gluedown floors that can be stained in any color of the rainbow," she says. "It's got a look you just can't duplicate, and it's helped both our younger and older customers get into cork."
Longleaf Lumber, based in Cambridge, Mass., has seen similar sales growth. According to Kathy Woodward, marketing coordinator for the store, sales of the material are up 63 percent for the store so far this year. She adds that the impressive numbers are due mostly to a big job that came through recently. A more accurate portrait would probably be the 34 percent rise in cork sales for the store last year.
"I think cork sales are growing because there's a general familiarity with the product now," Woodward notes. "But there's still a lot of intrigue in it as well. I wouldn't call cork a big seller, but it is important for us. It's kind of a quietly sold product."