Ask any contractor or manufacturer what's so special about retail flooring and they'll tell you what developers, architects and, yes, retailers are clamoring for: New floor coverings that bring retail space to life.

Sometimes it's natural materials such as stone, wood or marble that are chosen for a venue — ones that have been around since the beginning of time. Or, as in recent times, it's engineered flooring or a man-made material that's arguably better than what Mother Nature can manufacture on her own.

But whatever the chosen material, it's likely to complete a retail space and add an intriguing ambiance that even the busiest shopper can't overlook. Here's what the professionals say are the leading flooring trends of 2001.

Decorative flooring delivers customization

Retail flooring isn't boring anymore. It's alive with color and personality. And it adds aesthetic “oomph” to an environment's other architectural components.

“We're seeing a greater demand for color and for all types of decorative flooring that may incorporate medallions, abstract designs or company logos which can actually be cut into or made a permanent part of the floor,” says Randy Stertmeyer, director of sales and marketing for Winneconne, Wis.-based Creative Edge Corp.

The company cuts decorative flooring elements from all types of materials and offers its own product line in wood called Historic Floors of Oshkosh, ceramic and stone, known as its Aalto Collection. Retail clients include Disney and Nike.

“The thing we offer that's most beneficial to the retail environment is our custom capabilities,” Stertmeyer says. Creative Edge Corp. creates and cuts everything from playground designs out of resilient flooring for children's stores to huge borders for upscale retail venues and more standard floors for chain rollouts.

Another company offering decorative flooring, Commack, N.Y.-based TOLI International, uses PVC as its medium. Retail clients include Circuit City — which uses TOLI's Light Wood product in its entryways — and Great Indoors, an interior furnishings concept store for Sears. Great Indoors uses the company's Linotesta PVC flooring throughout its walking aisles.

TOLI International's print decorative PVC includes floor tile and sheet flooring. “It principally emulates natural stone and natural wood,” says Neil Rodden, director of sales and marketing.

Rodden says TOLI is seeing a mix when it comes to retail floor trends. On one hand, the company is often called upon to create stone and wood natural looks. Yet, on the other hand, there's a movement toward more metal-looking, cooler environments that follow the tastes of youth culture.

Rodden also reports shopping malls today are moving toward stained and sealed concrete flooring. In response, TOLI has come out with an abstract stained concrete visual that employs more geometric visuals.

In all its new products, the company strives to make flooring that requires less maintenance. “When people walk on floors, you have to clean them. But we're working to reduce the amount of maintenance that's required,” Rodden says.

What's new with wood?

Just because flooring is wood doesn't mean it only comes in your basic brown, natural shades. Wood floor colors now run the gamut in all shades of colors.

Dallas-based Buell Flooring Group, a division of Buell Door Co., specializes in hardwood and engineered flooring, a wood floor put together with several man-made plies or layers. Retail clients include Dillard's stores nationwide and Nautica.

When it comes to retail trends, Sherry Rentz, Buell sales associate, reports more diversity and more color. “Patterns seem more intricate than they used to be, and there's a lot of radius work with tile and other materials near the wood,” she says.

Rentz also finds retail clients are gravitating toward engineered flooring. Buell offers an engineered wood, for instance, that's three-ply, has a hardwood back, a hardwood core and a veneer top. What are the benefits of engineered wood flooring? “Engineered is more tolerant of moisture,” Rentz says. “It works better in the South — in states such as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, even Texas. A retailer will have less problems with it,” she adds.

Rentz also reports Buell just completed flooring for Federated Department Stores at the new Stonecrest Mall in Frisco, Texas, outside of Dallas. “We did some ellipses out of wood flooring that use a wide variety of colors,” she says.

Another company that specializes in hardwood flooring for retail construction is Syracuse, N.Y.-based Syracuse Commercial Floors. The company both performs commercial installations of wood flooring and supplies materials direct from the factory.

Brendan Prusik, national accounts manager for Syracuse, says the company is witnessing a flooring trend toward more pre-finished products, as opposed to unfinished product. “The reason is because it has a superior coating. It's more durable and it also installs a lot faster,” Prusik says.

Another advantage of pre-finished wood flooring is that it doesn't require workers to be on-site refinishing with volatile organic compounds. Instead, the finishing compounds are applied in a factory-controlled setting where chemicals aren't released into the atmosphere. “This also helps us get the stores open faster because you don't have a waiting time for the coatings to go on,” Prusik says.

As far as the creation of new products, Syracuse specializes in engineered flooring. The company also offers three-ply construction in a glue-down product — with no sub-floor required.

Syracuse's chosen engineered wood product also features a pre-finished aluminum oxide factory coating.

“Aluminum oxide is the stuff that's in sand paper, so when you put it in a coating it actually resists abrasion,” Prusik adds.

Carpet keeps improving

Dalton, Ga.-based Durkan Patterned Carpet specializes in product for the retail, restaurant, hospitality and assisted living industries. The company offers three main types of patterned carpet: printed patterned carpet, computer yarn placement pattern, or tapestron, for the high-end market, and conventional tufted pattern, mainly used for guest rooms. Retail clients include Disney and Chuck E. Cheese stores nationwide.

When it comes to retail trends, Steve Hillis, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Durkan Patterned Carpet, says his company is seeing retailer concern over both safety and cost effectiveness.

“Over the past 10 years, the trend has been away from carpet — more to hard surfaces in retail,” Hillis says. Yet, concern over shopper slip falls on hard surfaces is the No. 1 factor bringing retailers back to carpeting as a flooring choice.

“More people are getting sued over liability. If a retailer has any kind of hard surface floor that's waxed, and if a drink is spilled on it and someone slips, you've got some real issues,” Hillis says.

Hillis also reports while carpet historically didn't feature the long-life performance that retail traffic requires, Durkan Patterned Carpet is now delivering longer life in its products. “We've developed new backings that have moisture barriers, and we've reconstructed our products to stand up to both retail traffic and rolling-wheel traffic,” he says.

He also reports retailers are realizing that carpet delivers a long-term cost advantage over hard floor surfaces. “Carpet is more cost-effective because of the maintenance costs on other hard surfaces. I've seen many studies, but on average, it costs about five times more to maintain, say, a vinyl tile floor than it does carpet,” Hillis reports.

Yet another advantage of carpet is its customization abilities. “Our modular tile adds an easy way to distinguish the look of the mall or store with color, pattern and texture,” Hillis adds.

Another manufacturer of carpet, Milliken & Co. of LaGrange, Ga., is a leading provider of modular and broadloom carpet to the commercial, hospitality and residential markets. Retail clients include The Galleria at Roseville in Roseville, Calif., and Valley Fair Mall in San Jose, Calif.

Syd Welch, Milliken's market manager for retail, malls and hospitality carpets, says he's also seeing retail move away from hard surfaces throughout the country. “Noise levels are getting out of hand, and customers are leaving the premises because of noise and fatigue,” Welch says. He also notes slip falls as another concern for retailers.

According to Welch, more developers and designers are now choosing modular carpet for its look, feel and practicality. “Our modular carpet, with an attached cushion, keeps customers around and truly helps the sales associates that have to stand up all day,” he adds.

Milliken offers a number of new products including Millitron Pattern with stain and soil resistance technology and an unlimited color selection. Installation of these products requires a minimum of store/mall disruption and little floor preparation.

Top it off with architectural flooring

Concrete and cementitious floorings are yet another option for retail flooring. Las Vegas-based ARCON, a flooring contractor that works with a spectrum of cementitious products, delivers everything from conventional concrete to specialized toppings.

ARCON has traditionally serviced Las Vegas hotels, such as the Bellagio and Caesar's Palace, where its work serves to entertain via the flooring. Yet, the company also works with many traditional retail clients, such as Simon Property Group, offering a complete range of colors with ample graphics and patterns. Recent retail projects include Pacific Place mall in Seattle.

“Trend-wise, concrete has always been a medium that's very successful. It's durable and malleable, so you can do a lot with it,” says Mark Balogh, ARCON's president.

What new products does ARCON offer for retail? Micro toppings. Some of those new toppings include different types of glass, while other toppings employ rock. “We're doing a project right now in Las Vegas that has a rock that illuminates at night, so it glows in the dark,” Balogh says.

Yet another new interesting retail application is in raised flooring, which in the past was typically carpet. “It has fuzzy finishes, and we're starting to work with manufacturers of access flooring panels where, instead of carpet, you're using a cement-based topping,” Balogh says.

Another contracting company that provides innovative concrete surfaces for retail is San Diego-based T.B. Penick & Sons Inc. The company works with surfaces from reactive stains to micro-toppings and all types of architectural concrete flooring.

Director of business development for T.B. Penick, Frank R. Klemaske, reports his company is seeing a retail market shift toward more natural materials in aggregate, as well as some recycled materials, such as glass.

“A lot of the reason retail is going to recycled materials such as glass is because of the color ranges it offers and the reflectivity you get,” Klemaske says.

A benefit of the new glass toppings is durability, especially in areas where there are food courts. “The area is so dense with the glass material that nothing will penetrate it, and it's very easily maintained,” Klemaske adds.

The flexibility of vinyl

Another surface that continues to enjoy a strong retail market is vinyl, yet today it can masquerade as marble, wood, granite and many other types of flooring.

LSI North America Limited, based in Toronto manufactures resilient industrial-type vinyl tile that can take on many different looks, from natural stone to wood. The company also offers products that look like metallic tread plate, with an aluminum finish that's available in 12 colors.

Clients include a number of retail stores throughout Canada and the United States, such as Disney and True Value Hardware.

Rick Moffatt, sales and marketing associate for LSI, says, “Those 12 colors have a matching hammered finish that looks like an aluminum hammered-finish tile.”

The company's newest vinyl product offering is its Imagination Collection. “It's water, grass, river rock and autumn leaves — and it's absolutely stunning,” Moffatt says.

“It's very three-dimensional — with shadows in the picture that give it depth and texturing,” he adds.

In terms of trends, Moffatt says his company is seeing more vibrant colors, such as greens and steel colors, as well as aluminums and gunmetals. Yet, natural wood remains the biggest seller in vinyl flooring for the retail market, he reports.

No matter what type of vinyl material is chosen for a shopping center or retail store, from natural looks to vibrant colors and patterns, the product requires relatively little maintenance. The only procedure required to clean vinyl is a damp mopping process or a rotary scrubbing brush with a commercial wax, from time to time.

Another advantage of vinyl tile, according to Moffatt, is that it doesn't have to stay around as long as some other materials. “With a ceramic tile, you're probably looking at 20 years or more before you'll change it,” he says.

“With a vinyl floor, you can do the installation for about the same price, if not cheaper, but you can renovate that in 10 years, just like you would a retail store. Then you can command a higher price per sq. ft. from your tenants,” Moffatt says.

Carol Badaracco Padgett is an Atlanta-based writer.

Knock-off on wood

As a developer, architect or retailer, if wood is the look you're wanting, engineered flooring is a worthwhile consideration.

Brendan Prusik, national accounts manager for Syracuse, N.Y.-based Syracuse Commercial Floors, says, “The advantage of engineered flooring is that if you're looking for a low-profile floor, you can glue this directly to concrete — you don't need a subfloor.”

Just what is engineered flooring? It's a three-ply hardwood floor that's pre-assembled into a panel for easy installation, and retail clients across the country are choosing it for its stability in adverse conditions, such as high humidity and extreme temperatures.

Syracuse Commercial Floors is partial to an engineered wood product called Sure-Lock, which it recently installed in Guess? Jeans stores nationwide.

“Sure-Lock is stable because the face ply and the bottom ply are both the same species and thickness. So if there's any movement in the piece because of humidity or temperature, it's equivalent on both faces — it balances out,” Prusik says. He also notes that the product has a hardwood core, while some other engineered products have softer cores.

Another benefit of the Sure-Lock system is that it's pre-assembled with a backer that adds to its horizontal stability.

What maintenance is required? The same basic maintenance as three-quarter-inch nail-down hardwood product, because both products feature an aluminum oxide coating, which resists abrasion.
— Carol Badaracco Padgett