If it is generally accepted that people look down more than they look up, then the flooring material and general condition of the floor play a significant role in shoppers' perceptions. Shopping Center World recently sat down with several hard-surface flooring professionals to find out what is going right and what is going wrong in the selection and care of hard-surface flooring materials in retail environments.

There weren't too many questions asked before it became clear that, in retail stores and shopping centers, maintenance issues are compromised at best and ignored at worst. The flooring professionals take some of the blame for the lack of education about proper care and maintenance, but now they are working to spread the word.

Shopping Center World: What questions are retail clients not asking when they are facing a decision about hard-surface flooring material?

Ewing S. Barnett Jr., Georgia Marble Co.: Retail clients do not ask enough questions. I think that most flooring tile failures around the country can be attributed to the fact that the architect did not learn the proper specifications for the stone or the setting materials.

Charles V. Tynan, IMC: We get asked a lot of questions, but very often they are very targeted questions. They ask just about aesthetics or just about performance or just about price.

The architects and retail planning firms that impress me have a much more holistic approach, and they come to us early on. They say, "Here is the visual we have. Here is the image we want. Here is our budget. Here is where we are in the sense of retail space. Here is what is adjacent to our space. Tell me about maintenance requirements."

When we know what they're thinking about, we can bring in a set of samples, arranging material for their consideration that are within the context of what that space can take.

We need specifics. The scariest question in this business is when a client says he is "looking for something beige with a little undertone of rose." I can give him that, but I can also give him a lifetime of headaches depending on where the material is going.

Jeanne Nichols, GranitiFiandre: In addition, there is no communication among the people responsible for the building schedule, the budget and the maintenance. They are worlds apart, and they all have their own sets of priorities. No one knows or cares about the other.

Shopping Center World: Do they figure maintenance costs when they come to you about materials? Do they consider lifecycle costs?

Andrew S. Levine, Stone Care International: Maintenance is the No. 1 neglected aspect, and not just in the stone care area. The first budget cuts always go to maintenance.

We just came back from a janitorial supply show. We had high-polished stones displayed on our table. Almost every person who walked into our booth and saw the nice, high-polished pieces said, "Hey, what kind of wax is that?" Well, that's the actual stone itself, the crystals in the stone creating that reflection.

As soon as a wear pattern shows up on stone, the first thing the maintenance guy says is, "Let's put a coating on it." That's wrong. There are natural procedures to take care of stone so that it can look good all the time.

With carpet, you clean it with a carpet cleaner. If you have a window, you clean it with a window cleaner. If you have wood, you clean it with a wood cleaner. If you have stone, you need to take care of it with a stone-care product. These products are developed for natural stone.

Nichols: The same is true with tile. I can't believe the number of times I get called about "a problem with the tile," only to discover that the cleaning product doesn't even list tile or porcelain as surfaces the cleaner is for.

Joe Cooper, Vic International Corp.: We have been able to avoid some problems when we've had the opportunity to consult at the front of the project. We do not help with the stone selection so much, but we help people understand what it takes to get from one step to the next.

Too many times, the stone installer shows up, puts the stone in, and, as soon as the check clears the bank, he's gone. And it's only when the client sees deterioration in the stone, especially with the polished stone, that the maintenance company is called.

And we've seen it all. I've actually seen people with carpet cleaner washing polished marble. We actually had one case recently where a large stone installer recommended apple cider vinegar and water to take care of polished marble. Some of the stuff we're hearing is ridiculous.

Nichols: We walk in when they've created a worse nightmare than they had to begin with.

Cooper: We created part of the problem. The stone industry has not been responsible enough as an industry to bring maintenance programs with the product after installation.

Levine: Also, clients take it for granted that their maintenance guy is going to know how to take care of it. The problem is there's hundreds of janitorial chemical producers throughout the United States. The janitorial supply guy just calls his supplier, who says, "Hey, this is what you use."

I've seen neutral cleaners actually damage floors. Just because they are neutral does not mean they are safe.

Larry Rheinschmidt Jr., Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble: The main flaw is the guy who is selling the stone initially, the quarry. They have no idea how to maintain it. Their job is to take a block of stone out of the mountain and slice it up and polish it. They can tell you how to slice it and polish it, but the odds are they have not done the research to find out what are the proper maintenance procedures for a shopping center. There are companies now in Vietnam selling truckloads of marble for next to nothing, and I guarantee they're not giving maintenance instructions along with their truckloads of marble.

There's a hole in the stone system. There's nobody from the point where you buy the stone to where you install the stone to where everybody goes home that says, "OK, by the way, here's the proper way to clean this." Nobody has that in their scope of work.

Nichols: I think some of it has to do with the American mentality. In Europe, they install floors, hard-surface floors, that they intend to have forever. In the United States, every mall developer is looking to totally renovate in five to eight years. We have this throwaway mentality, the vinyl/carpet mentality: "It's going to have to be replaced; we have to redo."

I think maybe the core of the issue is making that switch from short-term to long-term investments. Yes, hard surface flooring costs more initially. You need to budget more to have proper installation, to use the best stones or the best ceramics, the best setting materials, because this is going to be a long-term investment that you're going to get a return on. But they don't look at it that way.

Levine: People are afraid to bring up maintenance because they don't understand it. Yet, it's not always complicated.

One thing we tell people to do is just a simple dust-mopping because it keeps abrasive debris off and helps prevent scratching and wear of the stone. But that may mean that you need to dust-mop three times a day instead of your normal two times a day. They look at you like you're from Mars. "I can't do that, that's one more man." But that one little extra step can go a long way. They just spent millions of dollars on the stone floor, and it can't be maintained as if it were vinyl.

Curt Jelmeland, Creative Edge Corp.: None of what we're talking about makes any difference.

The people who sell flooring materials are looking to make a sale. The first thing that raises a flag with architects is talking about issues they don't want to hear. They don't want to hear maintenance, they don't want to hear added cost, they don't want to hear any of this lifecycle stuff.

It's all about having a client, getting a job and getting it out and going onto the next one.

Tynan: I think we can, in fact, impact the early conceptual phase of the design all the way through to the lifecycle costs of the building. I think most designers are as aware of that final 3/8 inch as the entire building. We are the veneer, we are the personality of the building regardless of the substrata, the structure, the steel. We fashion the space.

Cooper: We actually now have done enough work with two major mall management companies that they give us, as maintenance specifiers, veto power over the type of material that goes into a renovation. So from the management level, they're being more educated.

Tynan: One of the things we like to do, lacking other ways to do it, is to give everyone we talk to now this book we've written titled Specifying Stone in a Retail Environment. It invites conversation. What are your adjacent materials? What's your intended lifespan? Are you mixing materials together?

What we tried to do was create a template, and let's not think of this as an IMC, but as an industry thing, a pamphlet that says: What's the whole job like? What's your design direction? What's the intended pedestrian traffic? What are some of the application considerations? What are some of the ADA considerations? We're saying to these people that there is a Marble Institute, there are stone-care companies.

Cooper: That template that you've got is the most responsible thing I've seen in your industry, from your side of the industry, ever. If you get your competition to do that, then our job becomes a lot easier.

Tynan: When you are dealing with the design community, the message needs to be that there is a full spectrum of aesthetic choices that provide the type of performance that your individual space needs.

Cooper: The biggest maintenance problem is the different types of finishes. That's where designers don't get it.

Thomas A. Jeffery, L.M. Scofield Co.: You have been talking about the differences in stone. Well, you can only transport concrete 45 minutes from the batch plant, so that means all of your raw materials are indigenous to that geographical location, making every concrete slightly different across the country. Those little nuances have to be addressed.

Nichols: I don't think anyone wants their product to be used in a failure. Every time you've forced yourself upon a job, you have lived it a million times since then.

Tynan: There are scores of very successful examples of proper installations. Those stories, I believe, are actually more dominant than these challenges, but this is a conversation about challenges.

I think of development companies like Rouse and designers like the Callison Partnership that are putting together intelligent spaces of materials that match, and setting materials and substratas that work. So it can work; it's clearly achievable.

Steve Daniels, Mapei: The setting materials are one thing that from the outset of a job are of critical importance. Most installations needed to be down yesterday or can be walked on tonight.

Rheinschmidt: In shopping centers, the most typical situation is: "You can start laying tile at 9:30 p.m. tonight and customers are going to walk on it at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, and I'd like you to grout it also, please."

Daniels: We should all wear

T-shirts that say, "Spend hundreds, save millions." All this information is out there. An architect or building owner that puts his mind to it could easily assemble a group of people that has a great service orientation. It's there for the asking.

I think there's compelling evidence that the application of these lessons and layers of experience in no way represents added cost. I think we could all assure the owner/developer that we're talking about substantially reduced long-term costs.

Maurizio Favretto, Ancor Granite Tile Inc.: That process is a lot further along than perhaps we realize. We recently undertook a survey with the help of Shopping Center World to discover what the perceptions and attitudes were among shopping center owners toward flooring recommendations. We asked them to rank the 10 items. Some of them are to be expected; some might surprise us a little bit. These get back to this question of the general sophistication and education among the owners.

This is the order: 1. aesthetics;

2. product reliability;

3. product durability;

4. ease of maintenance;

5. lifecycle costs;

6. availability and delivery time;

7. price-to-benefit ratio;

8. the reputation of the manufacturer or supplier;

9. ease of installation; and 10. lowest price.

Admittedly, some of these are pretty close, and they're not mutually exclusive. Some run over from one item category to the other. But their answers give you an indication that they are taking a more global approach, a holistic approach if you will, to flooring decisions.

Tynan: When somebody expresses concern to me about the potential lifespan of a natural stone floor, I say I would be glad to talk to you about it. Let's meet at the Sistine Chapel and stand on a 700-year-old floor. It can be done. There are success stories.

Murrell: I find it very interesting that price is No. 10. It is also very interesting that the No. 4 issue is maintenance, which means it's getting very close to the top. People are asking.

Rheinschmidt: I think price remains No. 10 as long as the first nine items fit in the budget.