Eye-catching floor designs have shoppers watching where they walk.

Shopping centers are following the model of amusement parks in their efforts to create a fun, themed atmosphere.

"They are in the process of making customers' lives entertaining when they are in the mall," says Harri Aalto, co-owner and creative director of Creative Edge Corp. in Fairfield, Iowa. As a result, retail property owners are using every available space, from ceilings to floors, to make the shopping center an interesting environment with the use of more color, design, shape, depth and themes.

The retail industry is using flooring as a new medium to introduce unique designs and intricate patterns into common areas and retail spaces. "We're getting a lot of blueprints where the design is specified for the flooring," Aalto says.

Creative Edge specializes in water-jet technology, which enables floor products ranging from ceramic to stone to be cut into intricate shapes. The cut materials are then used to create distinctive patterns, such as mosaics or murals.

Floor designs are becoming more popular, particularly in malls with multiple levels or atriums that give shoppers a bird's-eye view of floor design. "When you see it from above, it creates a far more dramatic effect," Aalto says.

Oftentimes, shopping centers add designs that complement a property's name, theme or logo. One recent Creative Edge project involved creating an icon in a mall's center court that spanned more than 30 feet across. "It's very dramatic, because when you come down the escalator you can see the site-specific graphics," Aalto adds.

The water-jet technology used to create such designs has been around for about 10 years as it pertains to architectural applications. The technology provides the means to cut intricate shapes in a variety of materials, such as tile, stone, metal and vinyl flooring.

Recent innovations in water-jet technology have been instrumental in advancing the trend in intricate floor designs. For example, water-jet technology is now able to make more sophisticated cuts, and the cost of the application has dropped in recent years.

Materials used to create floor designs include ceramic tile, terrazzo and stone. According to Aalto, ceramic has become one of the most popular choices for creating distinctive designs because it can be cut into any number of intricate shapes, and the tile comes in thousands of colors.

Regardless of the chosen material or technique, the overall trend in the retail industry is to use flooring products to enhance the design scheme of a shopping center or retail store. "It's not always the merchandise. It is the decor of the store that is attracting the buyer," says Peter Henschel, vice president of Atlas Carpet Mills Inc. in Los Angeles.

Another flooring trend has retailers moving their own floor designs farther out into common areas of malls to attract customers. Flooring can be used like signage to lead shoppers into a store, says Jeff Dahlberg, national sales manager for Terrazzo and Marble Supply Co. in Chicago. "It's an open invitation to bring shoppers into a store," he says. Retailers and shopping center owners alike are using a variety of flooring products to capture shopper attention.

Natural Or Engineered Stone Stone flooring is a traditional favorite in common-area flooring, and designers can take their pick from natural or manufactured products.

Engineered stone looks similar to natural stone, such as granite, yet it eliminates some of the negative attributes found in natural stone, Dahlberg says. The advantages of engineered stone include low maintenance costs and a longer life cycle compared with natural stone flooring. Engineered stone costs about $5 to $6 per sq. ft. installed.

In addition, engineered stone can be created to have a polished finish. "When people think of shine, they think of slippery and expensive - and that isn't the case with engineered stone," Dahlberg adds.

Another concern with shiny stone floors is that excessive foot traffic will wear off the polish, which requires repeated sealing, buffing and waxing for natural stone products. However, the shine on the engineered stone is more durable, Dahlberg says.

"It's a great natural-stone alternate," he continues. Engineered stone also can be created in custom colors and textures.

Castellarano, Italy-based GraniteFiandre is another manufacturer that has brought innovative flooring material to the industry. The company's products, classified as Geologic Stones, are natural material fabricated to recreate rare, exotic or extinct stones and stones that are unable to withstand the rigors of commercial use.

"The Geologica line allows developers and end-users to have flooring with the beauty and aesthetics of stone, but without the increased maintenance and limitations of quarried stone," says Jeanne Nichols, GraniteFiandre's director of sales and marketing. "Stone is coming back into vogue and a lot of retailers are using it right now."

Geologica stone presents itself as a viable alternative for food courts and other open court areas. As Nichols says, "Shopping centers are becoming more than places to shop. They're more like the piazzas in Italy where there's a lot of social happenings going on.

"Geologic Stone works well in these transition areas," she continues, "because it isn't affected by ultraviolet light and it has some really nice slip-resistant qualities. It's also able to make the transition from interior to exterior."

Although engineered stone provides a nice alternative, natural stone is still a popular flooring choice. One trend with natural stone is in the finish. Traditionally, stone flooring featured polished stone. The one downside to using polished natural stone in a commercial setting was that the wear from heavy foot traffic required additional maintenance to keep the floor buffed and polished.

"Now, the matte and tumbled materials are becoming more and more popular," Dahlberg says. The matte-finish stone products require less maintenance, as well as less time and money spent on upkeep. That, coupled with the opportunity to use the matte stone to create a different aesthetic look, is prompting higher demand for the matte and tumbled natural-stone flooring. The cost of natural stone ranges from $3.50 to $7 per sq. ft. installed.

Dallas-based Dal-Tile Co. imports and distributes ceramic tiles, as well as a variety of natural stone products including limestone, granite, slate and marble.

"There is a definite trend toward more natural colors and finishes," says Matthew Kahny, vice president of marketing for Dal-Tile. The emphasis is on selecting natural stones with more earthy character, such as limestone vs. a shiny marble product, he says.

In addition, designers are searching for stone-flooring products that feature a variety of textures. The textured stone can provide greater slip-resistance compared with other products. The texture also can be used as an aesthetic feature to provide more variation to the polished flooring. For example, textured-stone pieces can be used in conjunction with polished stone to create decorative patterns or borders.

Tile & Terrazzo Ceramic tile is one of the most versatile flooring products because it comes in a variety of types, colors and designs. Tiles range from the 12-inch squares found in restrooms and kitchens to the one- and two-inch ceramic tiles used in mosaics.

One of the most popular uses of ceramic tile these days is to create a mosaic design within the floor pattern. Designs range from creating an image, such as a rosette, to duplicating a company logo in a tiled entryway. "We see ceramic being used in all aspects of retail, from the main floor of a shopping center itself all the way into tenant stores, whether they be restaurant or retail," Kahny adds.

Ceramic tile offers a very strong combination of great aesthetic and design capability, along with positive performance attributes such as durability, slip-resistance, scratch-resistance and good maintenance properties, Kahny reports. Typically, ceramic tile is easier to clean than other flooring materials. Ceramic tile also holds a tremendous design potential in the variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Costs vary depending on the type of tile, but the average cost is $7 to $8 per sq. ft. installed.

"I think you're seeing ceramic tile - specifically porcelain ceramic tile - being the flooring choice in high-traffic areas," Kahny says. That choice is driven largely by performance characteristics. For example, the color of a tile goes completely through the body of the product. So there are no worries about scratching or wearing off of glazes.

"What has changed in even the last five years is that the range of colors and designs has expanded greatly due to new technologies," he continues. The 1- and 2-inch mosaic tiles alone can be found in dozens of different colors.

Another trend is the use of larger-sized tiles. Five years ago, eight-inch square tiles were used frequently. Now, it is very common to see 12-, 16- and even 18-inch square tiles in retail settings.

Chicago-based Terrazzo and Marble Supply Co. is the largest poured-in-place terrazzo supplier in the United States and the largest natural stone supplier in the Midwest. The company sells all three of its products - poured-in-place terrazzo, engineered stone and natural stone - to shopping center developers. While stone is the product of choice in common areas and tenant spaces, poured-in-place terrazzo is most often used in food courts and restaurants.

One advantage of terrazzo in a food court or restaurant setting is its more sanitary quality. Because it is poured into place, the finished product is seamless and, therefore, easier to clean. Terrazzo also can be used creatively to enhance design through a blend of designs and colors. For example, a tenant may use terrazzo when reproducing a company logo on the floor.

Terrazzo costs approximately $12 to $14 per sq. ft. installed. Traditional markets for terrazzo have been schools, hospitals and airports. However, the product is being used more in retail centers today. Theme stores and restaurants, such as Rainforest Cafe, are opting for terrazzo flooring, primarily because of the product's ability to create vibrant, decorative designs. "It's basically taking somewhat of a wire jigsaw and then filling in different colors of terrazzo to complete the puzzle," says Dahlberg.

When it comes to cleaning and maintaining the popular honed and textured materials, from natural stone to ceramic tile, Knoxville, Tenn.-based VIC International specializes in solutions. In product manager Bob Murrell's words, "We search the world for the best products for all kinds of specific applications, and we bring those applications to the market - along with the technical support to back them up."

For example, VIC International offers a line of water-based products that provide stain protection on textured surfaces. One such product, Impregnator WB, a product by Stone Medic, is the elixir of choice for malls across the country that feature honed limestone flooring.

Yet another water-based product called Top Shield, also by Stone Medic, is used as a stain protector for polished surfaces such as marble. "It needs to be re-applied periodically, based on the amount of traffic and maintenance a mall has," Murrell says. "Then we carry a line of products for stain removal.

"Those products are called poultices," he continues. "They're like a mud solution you pour on a stain and they draw the stain out. We have them for rust, grease, graffiti, and general purposes such as mold and mildew."

Wood And Carpet Pre-finished hardwood flooring has become part of the brand identity for many retail concepts, such as Crate & Barrel's look.

"Our most popular product is beachwood. That is our bread-and-butter product," says John Safarik, commercial sales manager for Junckers Hardwood Inc. in Anaheim, Calif. The light-colored wood is used to complement store decor. "It provides a nice backdrop for fixtures and products, and it adds a certain warmth that you don't get from tile, and a natural feel that you don't get from carpet," Safarik says.

One new trend among retailers selecting hardwood flooring is to use dark-hued wood. The richer wood colors are becoming more prevalent in bar and restaurant decor, Safarik says. For example, P.F. Chang's, a gourmet Chinese bistro, recently introduced a dark, coffee-colored wood to its restaurants.

Stores that favor carpet also are opting for bolder colors and designs. Traditionally, retail stores have used inexpensive cut-pile carpeting in solid colors. "The thinking was that if they used soft colors, it wouldn't detract from the merchandise," says Henschel. "Slowly, we manufacturers - along with some savvy designers - have moved them into subtly textured patterns, which are much more forgiving to wear and the abuse the carpet takes from the customer with regard to food, drinks, etc.," he says. A carpet's patterns can even help to disguise food and drink stains.

These days, carpet is found most frequently in high-end retail stores such as Nordstrom, Macy's or Bloomingdales vs. the hard surfaces used in shopping center common areas and stores such as Kmart or Target. In addition, stores that use carpet in select areas are becoming more daring in the use of color and design. "It started off with very conservative, geometric patterns, and now it's getting a little more avant garde," Henschel says. "Patterns and colors are being used to create a unique sense of fashion and flair."

Better carpet-maintenance programs also are helping carpet last longer. These days, carpet in a retail setting will last four to seven years, Henschel reports. But while retailers and shopping center owners are always looking to maximize the life cycle of the carpet, the reality is that the retail space likely will be redecorated before the carpet needs to be replaced.

Retail stores are opting to maintain the carpet and other flooring, using their own in-house staff instead of turning to more costly maintenance services, says Clark Brien, national sales manager of the commercial division for Oreck Corp. in New Orleans. Oreck supplies floor-buffing and polishing machines and vacuums to retail customers.

"A lot of people are going to flooring that calls for the least amount of maintenance possible, but flooring is never completely maintenance-free," Brien says. "So people are looking for cost-effective equipment that will do the job."

Making An Entrance Decisions regarding flooring products for store and shopping center entryways often depend more on practicalities than aesthetics. Not only are retail property owners concerned with using non-slip surfaces, but also the products need to prevent visitors from tracking snow, sleet, dirt and mud throughout the shopping area.

A common solution for retail centers is to use floor mats in vestibules and entryways to prevent slipping and trap dirt and moisture. But now, rather than covering up expensive tile or stone, some shopping centers are choosing to install recessed matting as their flooring product.

Shopping center owners are using the matting as their sole flooring product instead of simply a fixture. "What's driving it as much as anything is that if you're going to cover tile with a mat anyway, why not skip the tile and just put the mat in," says Mark Tucci, national accounts manager for Sbemco International Inc. in Algona, Iowa. Although shopping centers have moved toward floor products that feature greater slip-resistance, such as textured stone, those products are not very effective in trapping dirt or moisture.

Since matting is a necessity, some shopping centers have decided to cut costs by installing recessed matting. The recessed vestibule matting allows for both function and aesthetics because the perimeter, or non-traffic areas, can still feature decorative tile or ceramic borders.

The cost of matting ranges from $5 to $40 per sq. ft. installed, depending on whether the matting is permanently attached or "loose laid." "The higher-end prices come into play when more work goes into creating a deeper well to recess the matting," Tucci says.

Besides recessed matting, there's another old standby product that's making a reappearance of a more decorative sort in malls these days - concrete.

"It's a new market," says Murrell. "VIC has equipment and processes to grind, prepare and polish concrete - just like you would marble."

Architects charged with creating the Athletes World Super Store at the Montreal Trust Shopping Center in Canada needed two particular elements to create eye-catching flooring: sleek texture and rich color. The solution? Linosom Linoleum from Azrock, the commercial flooring brand of Florence, Ala.-based Domco Inc.

Linosom's textural abilities and intense color capabilities were chosen to provide a continuous, smooth surface to connect with different elements of a Nike Boutique located within the superstore.

As Dick Blue, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Domco, explains, "The architects used Veneto, a Linosom line that's available in unusually vibrant colors, which has won designers over time and again.

"Linosom also served the functional needs of the Nike retail space," he continues, "with resilience enough to survive the high-traffic retail environment - especially in a store selling athletic shoes."

Designers used Linosom to flow around the curved edges of the retailer's staircases and corners, while adding smooth, richly colored flooring in keeping with the decor.