Varying Countertops

What would we do without countertops? Once installed, these unsung heroes of the kitchen and bath quietly blend into the d'cor and do their jobs. They serve so many purposes, withstanding a barrage of abuse and requiring minimal care in return. Unwittingly, we take these stationary workhorses for granted that is, until they finally wear out or some unfeeling visitor points out their once fashionable, but now outdated, traits.

Like most elements of the kitchen and bath, countertops have made great strides in fabrication and design since the scallop and boomerang designs of the 1960s.

To find out more about the amazing array of countertop offerings, I consulted Ren'e Hytry, fellow Color Marketing Group member and v.p./design with Formica Corp.

The prosperity of the 1990s caused consumers to demand upscale, real materials such as granite, stainless steel and butcher blocks, Hytry said. While today's buyer still has that champagne taste, tighter economic times and better faux materials have caused many to turn to look-alike laminates that imitate natural materials. In addition, today's consumer no longer desires the solid, pure colorations or the trend toward "matchy-matchy" decorating for all kitchen materials seen in years past. Instead of matching (almond appliances, almond countertops, almond flooring, etc.) they are willing and ready to experiment and experience the visual depth offered by textures and patterns.

"Consumers today are much more sophisticated where aesthetics are concerned," Hytry said. "They are interested in mixing and blending materials, colors, textures, patterns and shades within a room space. High-touch materials with visual depth are the latest product developments driven by consumer demand."

Texture is just as important for bathroom countertops, but recent trends include more custom applications and, thus, larger tops. No longer is the bathroom vanity simply a cabinet box with a cap on it. Over the past five years, the bathroom has evolved to encompass complex countertop arrangements, including wall-to-wall, multi-segment and multi-level configurations. Plus, with the trend toward stone-finish tiles for the floor and wall, stone and stone-look countertops have gained in popularity.

Other home trends that have created additional countertop display opportunities include home office, Great Room and home entertainment spaces. The home office concept has gone from a card table shoved into a corner to a work environment that accommodates commercial-style work functions within a stylish and personal space. The great room boom has prompted consumers and designers to think "outside the box," putting islands in multi-use gathering areas and expanding furniture touches throughout the home. Home entertainment has experienced a 21st-century revival, with digital media and plasma screens, creating new opportunities for built-in configurations. The truth is, wherever the need for a work surface exists, a new and varied countertop landing space is created.

Showroom Success
As with any aspect of showroom sales, displaying a variety of current options for countertops is important in achieving success. "Every product category is all about customizing, so give your customers plenty of choices," Hytry said. Samples should be kept tidy and dust-free, in an easy-to-access, user-friendly selection center.

To keep your displays fresh and inviting, Hytry suggests setting aside a part of your annual showroom improvement budget to update countertops every two years. Since cabinetry tends to have a little longer life span than other elements, updating paint, decorative hardware, sinks, faucets and decorative treatments are quick and economical ways to keep your customers' interest.

To increase your countertop sales through showroom design, develop a strong relationship and flexible manufacturing agreement with a quality fabricator. When choosing which countertops to display, try to create a mix of current materials, techniques and price points.

Create your own "treasure boxes" filled with appealing backsplash options and edge details, so consumers can easily experiment with actual combinations.

Whenever possible, be the first in your market to show new products, techniques and ideas for the lines you carry. To maximize the impact of this strategy, consider creating a new product area or use fabricator samples to create unique installations. Keep your own business strategy in mind by calling attention to add-ons or upgrade features you want to sell.

Finally, remember that above all else, good design from the samples you choose to the finest details of an installation impacts your professional reputation.

Staying Current
When updating your showroom displays, it's important to know what new looks will be coming next to make potential countertop switch-outs as easy as possible. Tone-on-tone treatments exhibiting visual light reflectance and physical textures, such as pearlescent materials, are now beginning to emerge. Also, in response to the consumer's demand for durable, easy-care surfaces, Hytry said we can also expect to see manufacturers attempt to replicate metal and leather looks for laminate.

Four to six years into the future, we can expect to see countertops trending back toward solid colors, according to Hytry. But until then, consumers are having fun with the texture elements offered by natural materials like stone, leather and metal.

"Right now, consumers are in love with visual and tactile texture, for both authentic and imitation materials," she said. "It is essential to show your customers a variety of textures and colors throughout your showroom to satisfy this need."