Long gone are the days of cheap, plastic looking vinyl flooring. Thanks to advancements in technology over the last decade, manufacturers are now able to capture greater detail and produce luxury vinyl tile (LVT) with stunning realism.

“Old LVT used to be shiny and plastic-looking. It didn’t come off as being very real,” said Yon Hinkle, Armstrong Industries’ general manager, residential tile floors and design. “Newer LVT products have a much better ability to target a look, gloss and texture that better resembles the real thing.”

For Mannington, which entered the LVT category 11 years ago, realism begins with the source of inspiration, according to Joe Amato, vice president of residential styling. “At Mannington, we try to start with real products. Whether it’s going to lumber yards and finding natural wood, or looking at natural stone and marble. If you start with the real product, as you try to emulate that look, you’re going to have your best shot at making it look real as possible.”

The same goes for Karndean Designflooring, whose design influences come from the world around us, according to Jenne Ross, the company’s product manager. “Our influences don’t come from other flooring categories and their technology; we look toward nature for influence. The core focus of Karndean is to find beautiful products from the natural world around us, so we’re focused on finding new places to discover inspirational products.”

With the help of high-definition (HD) printing, laser engraving and ink viscosity improvements, manufacturers like Mannington, Armstrong and Karndean are producing realistic hardwood, stone and tile looks to meet consumers’ design needs.

Newcomers to the LVT business are just in time to reap the benefits of these and other technological advancements in the evolving category. “USFloors has only been in the LVT business since we introduced COREtec Plus in late 2012, early 2013,” said Gary Keeble, the mill’s product and marketing manager. “However, in that relatively short time, we have seen noticeable improvements in the image definition that I believe is a key driver in the phenomenal growth of LVT.”

In addition to technology, Hinkle credits Armstrong’s spot-on LVT products to the company’s talented design team. “It’s one thing to take something from concept to reality, or even to make a scan of a real product and try to translate that to LVT. That takes a skill and there’s an artistic process that goes in to that as well. It’s one of the things that have benefitted Armstrong. We have a really outstanding in-house design team.”

These days, realism doesn’t stop at aesthetics. According to Amato, LVT’s visual is not just its color and design—it’s also the format, gloss, character and surface texture. Manufactures are going one step further by creating products that not only visually mimic their real-life inspirations, but the feel of them as well.

“To us at Karndean, flooring is a sensory experience—it’s visual and tactile,” said Ross. “To complete the impression of real wood and stone, the texture of the floor is just as important as the visual features. Over the years, we’ve mastered our registered embossing technique to match the highs and lows in the colors with the feel of the wearlayer. By mirroring the surface texture with grain patterns and stone features, we bring a tactile experience to these intricate traits.”

Knots, heavy scraping, wire brush—you name it—today’s print technology can create both the look and feel of it. “In recent years, the ability to align the emboss texture with the print of the design (known as embossed-in-register or EIR) has allowed us to create visuals that are almost indistinguishable from real wood when installed side-by-side,” said Di Anna Borders, design development manager–LVT and laminate for IVC US. “Rustic style woods benefit the most from EIR. All the knots and cracks align with the texture, so the realism is enhanced and the feeling of the Old World character of the wood comes to the forefront.”

This realism is changing the way consumers feel about LVT products in comparison to “the real thing,” according to Hinkle. “People used to think of [LVT] as a ‘trade-down’ because you’re not getting the real thing, but now we get feedback from our customers all the time that it is a ‘trade up,’ or better.”

Like any flooring category, consumer LVT style demands vary by region. Hinkle said for Armstrong, dark, heavy rustics with really heavy scraping are “king” in the Southwest.

But some styles are national, according to Ross, who noted gray tones in both stone and wood are very popular for Karndean across the country right now.

Due to these trends, renovation TV shows and design social media platforms, it’s safe to say the consumer already has an idea about an LVT product and design she wants before visiting a retailer.

“These exceptional realistic visuals are what help the products almost sell themselves in terms of brining the customer in. It’s no longer a hard sell,” said Michele Zelman, a spokesperson for Armstrong.

However, no matter the region or desire, what customers need the most help with is determining if the product they are considering is right for them, said Hinkle. “They already know whether they like the color, design and overall look. What they need help with is making sure they are getting the right product for their particular need.”

And that is where the knowledge and help of a professionally trained retail salesperson comes into play.