Important for center branding, activity-enhancing sound, colorful ambiance and shopper comfort, flooring products offer shopping center owners a world of choices.

While all the real estate brokers will tell you that "under all is the land," anyone who owns or manages a shopping center is probably more likely to view the floor as the real underpinning of the property. After all, what part of a center (except perhaps the storefronts) comes in closer contact with shoppers each and every day of operation?

And while we're on the subject - what makes the best flooring material in today's shopping center? Natural stone, concrete, ceramic tile, vinyl or carpet? To find out answers to this and other questions, Shopping Center World called on several leaders in flooring materials to share their views with us on what's going on in their industry - and also, better still, to clue us in on the latest news about their particular products.

What material's right for you? When it comes to flooring these days, "Shopping center owners are more savvy than ever before," according to Mark Chacon, vice president of Associated Imports, an Atlanta-based importer of natural stone and ceramic tile that supplies Simon Properties, Nordstrom and various other players in the retail industry. He is also author of Architectural Stone: Fabrication, Installation, and Selection ( John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1999). "They are aware of the flooring choices out there, and what they can expect in terms of durability and maintenance needs," he says.

A lot of these owners are opting for stone, says Chacon. Its look is a major factor. "The flooring industry has been trying to emulate the look and feel of natural stone with other materials for years," he says. On the durability side, "A maintained stone floor will never wear out," notes Chacon. Meanwhile, like all hard flooring surfaces, stone allows sound within a center to echo, which is important, he says.

"Hard surfaces provide for the reverberation of sound, which creates excitement within a center," says Chacon. "Shopping center owners and managers often talk about providing a `total retail experience,' and part of that is a sense of being a part of a lot of activity," he says. "Who wants to shop in a center where it sounds like you are the only person there?"

Not everyone revels in the sounds of the marketplace, according to at least one manufacturer of carpeting for retail environments. "We've gotten well-known in the malls because owners want more patterns and less noise," according to Pat Durkan, president and COO of Dalton, Ga.-based Durkan Hospitality, a manufacturer of patterned carpet.

"People want less noise," notes Durkan. "They also want a surface that is easy to walk on," she says. "People don't appreciate walking for a long time on a hard floor." With carpet, adds Durkan, "For the first time, people can enjoy the best of comfort and design in one [flooring] product."

Still, stone is hard to beat, according to Irma Lovelace, vice president of Houston-based Stone Marketing International, an importer and marketer of granite and marble, tile and slab, porcelain tile and glass block.

"Natural stone is very practical, has low maintenance needs, and it's a look everybody wants to have," says Lovelace. And, increasingly, she notes, "Ceramic manufacturers worldwide are getting better at making a tile that looks just like stone, is less expensive but just as easy to maintain."

Meanwhile, decorative concrete surfaces provide shopping center owners and managers with durability, ease of application, and freedom of expression, according to Michael Lowe Jr., marketing director for Tampa-based Increte Systems, a manufacturer of a variety of architectural concrete products.

"Thanks to advances in chemistry, these systems can now handle about double the load of normal concrete," notes Lowe. At the same time, "because our systems are applied in about 1/4-inch to 3/8-inch thickness, they can be installed over existing concrete with few problems," he says. Also, "you can get pretty much any kind of texture or color you like with decorative concrete - you can duplicate the looks of brick, slate, granite and even wood."

And in the specialty flooring department, "Property managers and facility designers are moving away from expensive, inflexible grate-style systems," according to Mark Tucci, national accounts manager for Algona, Iowa-based Sbemco International Inc., a manufacturer of custom safety floor matting who was recently named a "Preferred Vendor" for the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group.

"The focus is on flexible and creative systems that allow the property to enhance the entry areas, and to provide the opportunity to `brand' the property," says Tucci. "Cost and value factors are driving properties to look at all facets of a product - installation, maintenance, effectiveness, life expectancy and removal," he notes, "as well as the cost of new material to replace the existing product."

Working with decorative concrete "During the last decade, decorative concrete flooring has steadily become the material of choice within the shopping center flooring marketplace," according to Frank Klemaske, director of business development for San Diego-based T.B. Penick & Sons' Innovative Concrete Surfaces, which uses its T.B. Penick Micro-Tough (MTS) and Reactive Coloration system to color and finish surfaces. "This is because the design possibilities are essentially limitless to create any environment, mood or atmosphere," he notes, "and there is no other material that allows the flexibility, durability and cost-effectiveness as decorative concrete."

At Opry Mills, a 1.2 million sq. ft. shopping center next to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., "There is a direct correlation between the domestic arts, music and Southern hospitality, as well as the elements incorporated into the design of the center and concrete flooring we installed," says Klemaske. "For Opry Mills we utilized the T.B. Penick Reactive Coloration System throughout the center to achieve a variety of colors and surface finishes to meet the design criteria."

Seventeen custom colors were mixed for Opry Mills' reactive coloration system, along with color hardeners, recounts Klemaske. "Adding to the colorful flooring palette are transitional merchandising areas featuring geometrically-shaped saw-cut patterns highlighted by inlaid piano keys and graphics," he says. Flooring for the Opry's 36,000 sq. ft. "Picnic in the Park" themed food court was creatively enhanced by custom-cut leaves in a colored and polished concrete surface, says Klemaske, then illuminated by "sunny" overhead lighting.

"Shopping center owners like working with the T.B. Penick's concrete flooring system because it is highly durable and cost-effective," adds Klemaske. "The MTS and Reactive Color Process can be applied both to existing and new concrete for shopping center renovation or expansion or we can utilize the foundation surface in new centers. With concrete flooring, shopping center owners can market and merchandise their mall through the use of atmosphere and ambiance."

According to Chris Stewart, director of technical services at Madera, Calif.-based Bomanite Corp., a developer of cast-in-place systems utilizing colored, textured and imprinted architectural concrete paving technologies, two of his company's flooring options are very popular with shopping centers.

Creating an Old World look "Patene Artectura[R] creates a mottled patina-like finish that does not hide surface defects or existing color discoloration, but rather works in conjunction with the substrate to produce a variegated finish or Old World look," says Stewart. This is a very customized approach, where each project is individually designed with a number of components in mind including architectural elements, atmosphere, mood, etc.," he notes, with Bomanite contractors recommending appropriate coloring, patterning and texturing "to create a unique, yet cost-effective, concrete paving or flooring surface."

Meanwhile, says Stewart, "Micro-Top is a cost-effective and time-saving cementitious, colored topping system that allows unlimited color and design options for a variety of surfaces." It utilizes a troweled-on topping that tenaciously bonds to virtually any horizontal or vertical substrate, including concrete, wood, metal, plastic or asphalt, he notes. "Micro-Top provides durable, colorfast, high-strength graphic splash to any project such as custom logos, unlimited graphics, swirls of color or marbleized hues to reach the perfect color combination," says Stewart. "It also makes previously hard-to-produce graphic designs less time-consuming, thus shortening overall scheduling for managers, owners and architects."

Katy Mills Mall, which opened just outside of Houston in October 1999, provides an example of a Patene Artectura[R] with Micro-Top installation, reports Stewart. "The Katy Mills Mall had "themes" carried out in the floor design," he explains. "The themes included drafting, woodcut, paper-cut and photography areas, and also an entertainment area with a mix of graphic designs," notes Stewart. "Through the use of scoring, chemical staining and micro coatings, the themes were brought alive."

Mixing it up Glaudo Jura stone from Germany (recently used in Citrus Park Mall in Tampa, Fla.) "wears like iron," making it, as well as other natural stone products, a popular flooring choice among shopping center owners and managers, according to Stone Marketing International's Irma Lovelace. Meanwhile, products such as Caesar and Buchtal ceramic tiles are also in demand, she notes.

Everyone has their reasons for picking natural stone or ceramics, Lovelace says. Increasingly, shopping centers are using both in their floors, she reports.

"There has been a long-term trend toward centers mixing tile with stone," says Lovelace. For example, at the 1.3 million sq. ft. Park Mall in Tucson, a recently completed redevelopment project by General Growth Properties, Stone Marketing provided Caesar Porcelain, "a tile with a limestone-like appearance," as the primary material for the mall's flooring, she says, "and we used some slate and sandstone for accents.

"There has also been an increasing interest in utilizing large rectangles of materials - 12 inches by 16, 18 or 24 inches - in flooring," says Lovelace. "Shopping center owners and managers like to use 12-inch by 24-inch rectangles for malls because it is so versatile - you can create a lot of different patterns," she notes.

Safety first Stone Marketing recently introduced K-Grip, "the newest and best solution for non-slip stairs, ramps and flooring, both interior and exterior," to North American markets, reports Lovelace. "K-Grip is ADA-approved and provides a simple, permanent, attractive, versatile and cost-effective solution to slip-fall problem areas for all hard surfaces, including natural stone, ceramic tile and any hard surface except plastic."

Also in the flooring safety department, "Our `Bruno' line of matting has been a cost-effective alternative," says Sbemco International's Mark Tucci. "It allows for easy removal and installation, keeping entrance areas open," he notes. "By trapping more dirt and moisture than any other mat in the market, it keeps entry areas and the entire facility cleaner and safer."

Like the rest of Sbemco's product line, Bruno has been installed in both existing centers and new centers, according to Tucci. "We can manufacture matting to fit the exact size and shape a customer needs," he says, adding that "a five- to seven-year life expectancy provides excellent value."

Carpet corner Now entering its 31st year in the carpeting business, Durkan Hospitality specializes in the art of carpet printing, producing a wide variety of pre-designed collections as well as custom-designed projects. In the retail arena, this type of carpeting is used to delineate space, create themes, build traffic and define the personality of store and malls.

The company uses the latest in technology to create its products. According to information on its Web site (www.durkan.com/hospitality), Durkan utilizes an in-house developed, $7 million, 16-station flatbed screen printer, the only one of its kind in the world. Dubbed "The Durkan 16," this printer is entirely controlled by programmable logic computers, allowing what the company calls "intricate fine-line pattern definition" that is considerably superior to the somewhat coarser effects achievable in woven carpets. From extraordinary fine-line definition to precisely controlled color saturation, the Durkan 16 is said to provide the finest flat screen-printing available today.

Meanwhile, Durkan's proprietary jet printer, the Durkan Spectronic, "prints with a rich deep chroma without any trace of surface frosting common with competitive jet printers." The Spectronic print design repeats up to 100 feet long, according to Durkan, and through the use of aligned multi-carpet breadths, has printed designs wider than 60 feet. Using this technology and working hand-in-hand with Durkan's Styling and Planning Departments, "interior designers now can create magnum-scale effects in keeping with the physical scale of ballrooms, shopping malls, convention centers and other huge arenas," the company states.

The carpeting Durkan uses in malls and stores is a level loop-based petit point, "a very low-pile, very dense carpet," according to Pat Durkan. "We've also done cut pile," she notes, "but for mall use, loop-based is probably the most outstanding."

Durkan Hospitality carpet can be found in a variety of retail environments, including Jersey Gardens Mall in Elizabeth, N.J., Grapevine Mills Mall in Grapevine, Texas, as well as in stores of retailers such as Macy's, F.A.O. Schwarz, Parisian, Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor. "We started out in the retail market, and have been doing movie theaters in malls forever," notes Durkan.

From the maintenance perspective, patterned carpet is easy to take care of, according to Durkan. "For example, at Jersey Gardens, the carpet has an earth/leaves/garden kind of look, with lots of texture and pattern, which actually takes away from any appearance of soiling," she notes. Meanwhile, the acoustic damping effect of carpeting, says Durkan, "has actual value to the mall."

Indoors and out Increte System's Mike Lowe notes that his company's products can be found in malls that include Annapolis Mall in Annapolis, Md.; Westshore Mall in Tampa; and the Mall of America in Minneapolis.

"INCRETE is a poured-in-place, stamped concrete system, primarily applied outdoors, that duplicates the look of natural stone, slate, granite and brick at a fraction of the cost of natural materials," according to Lowe. It is available in an unlimited number of color and pattern combinations, he notes, and requires little or no maintenance whatsoever. At the same time, ThinCrete[TM] "utilizes the same range of patterns and colors, but is applied indoors to existing surfaces." Meanwhile, Stain-Crete[TM] "is a decorative concrete staining system designed to create an aesthetically rich and variegated finish that will not peel, chip or fade."

Taking the vinyl view Vinyl tile has its adherents, too. "It is a resilient product, therefore, it will not chip, scratch or dent," says Kathy Holdridge, commercial marketing manager for Azrock Commercial Flooring vinyl tile. Azrock - along with Domco, Nafco, Tarkett and Harris-Tarkett - is a major product line of Domco Tarkett Inc. Headquartered in Farnham, Quebec, Canada, this is the second-largest hard-surface flooring manufacturer in North America and, with its parent company, Tarkett Sommer, the second largest hard-surface flooring company worldwide.

"The industry has improved resilient flooring to where the weight the product will take is much higher than it was just a few years ago, and you can get a wide variety of visual effects," says Holdridge. Because it is resilient, she notes, "It will not chip, scratch or dent." And, at the same time, she says, thanks to its strength, "If you've got a store that sells baby grand pianos, you can move them around [on the resilient floor] and not worry a bit about cracking or grout coming loose."

Stone, ceramic, carpet, concrete, vinyl - no matter the type of material you choose for your shopping center floor, certain principles always apply.

"The three key ingredients to a successful floor are sound material selection; good installation; and an ongoing maintenance program," according to Chacon of Associated Imports in his article, "Hard Surface Flooring in the Retail Environment," published in The ICSC Guide to Renovating & Expanding Shopping Centers the Smart Way.

"To achieve consistently successful projects, always select the best suppliers, installers and maintenance people for your team," he counsels. Members of this team "should be experienced in your specific project type for a period of at least 10 years," notes Chacon, "with a history of on-time product delivery, excellence in handling and installation of materials, and care for the preservation of your new floor."