Navigating the Countertop Industry: Common areas of confusion in the countertop buying process
The average person switches jobs every 4.2 years, purchases an automobile every 6 years, and stays married for 8.2 years. A lot of life happens in the 13 years that the average American spends between the purchase of new countertops, so it’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed as you set off on your buying journey.
Very few homeowners have the benefit of past experience to act as a guide, which is why we’re using this post to explain a few aspects of the countertop industry that tend to create the most confusion.
Confusion #1: Distributors have a customer-facing role (but they won’t sell to you)
If you Google “who sells shoes?”, you may return results for Nike, Foot Locker, and Zappos— a manufacturer and two retailers. Standard stuff.
What you WILL NOT see is a search result for Caleris Inc., the largest footwear distributor in North America.
Why? Because Caleris doesn’t want to sell you shoes! They’re a distributor and in most industries, they deal in logistics and fulfillment between manufacturer and retailer and almost never in a customer-facing role. Not the countertop industry though! In this industry distributors are front and center, thumbing their nose at conventional supply chain roles and actively competing for your attention (OMG countertop distributors are soooo edgy!!).
The distributor’s role in the countertop industry is confusing because they appear to be playing the role of the retailer when in fact they’re just assisting the retailers by acting as neutral showrooms for viewing stone slabs. They’ll show you the slabs but they won’t sell you the slabs (or even provide you with pricing for that matter).
While the distributor’s non-standard role is confusing, it’s also necessary. Here’s why:
1) Retailers don’t have the space to store and showcase full slabs. Distributors have plenty of space so they act as a de-facto showroom where retailers around the city can send prospective customers to view. This, of course, helps boost their own sales so it’s a beneficial relationship.
2) Slabs are hard to transport and very fragile so limiting their movement is sound business. It’s safer and easier for a retailer to send customers to view slabs at a distributor than it is to bring the slabs to the customer.
Though distributors won't sell to you, they will assist you in selecting slabs and will pass along those selections to the retailer. The retailer will factor the costs of your selected slabs into your countertop quote (with a markup, of course).
If you’re researching online and are unsure whether a company is a retailer or a distributor, remember: a retailer’s website will reference installed countertops and likely have a gallery of images showing installed countertop projects. A distributor’s website mostly focuses on the slabs they stock and will make no reference to fabricating or installing countertops.
Distributors stock slabs for sale to countertop retailers. They assist retailers and help themselves by doubling as a showroom for customers.
Confusion #2: Quartz slabs mostly perform similarly across brands
Have you decided to use quartz for your next countertop surface? Great decision, quartz is a fantastic choice! The problem? There are hundreds of quartz brands and thousands of styles to choose from, and it can be overwhelming. Does one brand perform better than the next??
In a manner of speaking, all quartz countertops more or less perform the same way (annnd cue the angry manufacturer emails). In the 1960s, a manufacturer of machining centers called Breton S.p.A. created the machining process for quartz countertops and, to this day, owns the rights to that process. In order to produce quartz slabs, one must use Breton machining centers. Breton says it best on their own website: “behind every major brand and company in the engineered stone sector, there’s Breton technology”.
Just take a look at the who’s who of quartz brands that produce quartz slabs using Breton technology:
In terms of performance, only so much contrast can be drawn if the manufacturing processes of all quartz brands rely on the same technology. Proving or disproving a manufacturer’s claim that their product performs better than another’s would require cutting through a mountain of technical data that is largely unavailable.
It’s the various styles and their associated price points that serve as a brand’s most significant differentiators, so prioritize as such.
Confusion #3: Many quartz brands are collections of “white-labeled” quartz styles
Most of the well-known quartz brands such as Silestone, Caesarstone, Cambria, etc. own/lease their Breton manufacturing facilities and produce the quartz slabs that they sell. These well-known quartz lines are highly visible online and carry strong brand recognition.
As you dive further into the countertop purchasing process and begin visiting local retailers and distributors, you’ll almost certainly encounter quartz brands that you won’t recognize. Most of these brands do not actually produce quartz slabs out of their own Breton facilities. Rather, these brands represent collections of “white labeled” quartz styles.
Much in the same way that Costco sells their own Kirkland brand of products to compete on the shelf next to the more recognizable brand names, stone distributors often partner with quartz manufacturers that specialize in producing white labeled quartz slabs for resale. The distributor designs a logo, selects the various styles that will comprise their line, and markets them as such.
So, do these white-labeled quartz lines perform as well as their more popular counterparts? It’s impossible to say with certainty but just remember, if quartz slabs are being produced, they’re done so using Breton manufacturing facilities.
Confusion #4: Retailers can quote you “Per Square Foot” or “Per Slab”
Countertop retailers will quote your countertops one of two ways depending on the type of countertop material you’re interested in:
1) Using “Per Square Foot” pricing
2) Using “Per Slab” pricing
Quotes using “Per Slab” pricing
Natural stone slabs are distributed in “bundles”. It helps to imagine a bundle as a loaf of bread that is pre-sliced. Each of the slices contains the same general attributes of color, texture, and flavor of that loaf.
Unlike loaves of bread which can be replicated, natural stone like granite, marble, and quartzite forms deep in the earth’s crust over millions of years and is subject to uncontrollable conditions.
Slabs within a bundle are unique but share similar enough qualities to be used in the same countertop project. Slabs across bundles likely have too much inherent variation to be used in the same project.
Let’s imagine a situation where you’re replacing your kitchen countertops. After the shapes of your counters are laid out on a slab of stone, it is determined that you’ll need an additional piece to be cut out from a second slab in order to yield your kitchen countertops. If that final countertop run measures 60”x25.5”, then almost ⅔ of that second slab will go unused.
Even though your project will leave behind almost ⅔ of a slab, the retailer is going to charge you for both slabs because, the “remnant” i.e., the remaining section of that second slab, is unlikely to ever sell. Here’s why:
- By itself, the remnant is not large enough to create countertops for a standard kitchen.
- Pairing the remnant with a slab from a different bundle is unlikely to work given the aforementioned variations in color and pattern across bundles.
The retailer *could* hold on to the remnant and possibly sell it to a future customer that has a smaller material requirement (say, a bathroom countertop project), but that’s a big gamble. To resale the remnant, consider the inside straight the retailer needs to hit:
- A customer that is looking to purchase Taj Mahal for their countertop, as opposed to one of the other 10K+ options on the market
- That customer’s approval of the remnant’s unique pattern and variation (These aren’t easy decisions— I once saw a couple almost divorce over white paint selections)
- The remnant being able to yield that customer’s project
It’s a long shot!
A retailer has a lot of expenses he /she needs to cover (employee wages, a commercial lease, equipment maintenance, etc.) To keep their business operational, the retailer needs to make money on every project which means they’ll need to pass the cost of that second slab along to the customer.
Quotes using “Per Square Foot” pricing
We’ve discussed quartz countertops quite a bit in this blog post, and for good reason. The advent of the engineered quartz countertop has been the most disruptive industry innovation in the past 50 years. One of the unique shifts in the industry that was brought about by the rise of quartz surfacing is the retailers' shift to a “Per SF” pricing model.
The Per Square Foot pricing model allows customers to pay for only the square footage of the actual countertop area that is to be installed, which is great… sometimes.
For retailers, this pricing model is made possible by the color consistency inherent in quartz. Quartz is a man-made product and the controllable inputs used in the manufacturing process guarantee consistency of pattern and color across slabs of a particular style.
If a retailer has a high chance of utilizing a remnant at a later date, they can be more flexible in the prices that they extend to customers, as any loss in margin today is offset when the remnant is utilized in a future project. This mitigation of risk allows the retailer to price out stone in an easily digestible way that saves both the retailer and the customer time.
Under Per Slab pricing, a retailer has to know the exact dimensions of your project to even provide a ballpark quote. It’s time-consuming.
With Per Square Foot pricing, the retailer can simply provide their listed Per Square Foot rate (e.g., $65/sf installed). This allows the customer to ballpark the cost based on the total Square Footage of the job. Easy peasy.
As great as this is for retailers and customers, Per Square Foot pricing has a few caveats:
First, most retailers will only offer Per Square Foot pricing if your project area exceeds a minimum threshold, typically around 30 SF. This protects the retailer from having to purchase an entire slab to satisfy a small area. Remember, the re-usable nature of quartz remnants only mitigates a retailer’s risk of not being able to resale the unused portion of the slab, it doesn't eliminate the risk.
Second, retailers build additional risk mitigation into the Per Square Foot rates that they offer. The closer you are utilizing a full slab worth of material, the less beneficial the Per Square Foot pricing structure may become. In some cases, you’ll end up paying more than if the retailer had quoted you on a Per Slab basis.
However, this is a moot point. The retailer is not going to give you an option of selecting the pricing structure that he/she uses. Per Square Foot pricing may seem like the better deal (and in many cases, it may be just that), but for every customer who benefits from Square Foot pricing, there’s a customer who doesn’t. Businesses exist to maximize profit so they’re not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.
A final note on pricing structure
Many retailers in the countertop industry would rather not get into the economics behind their pricing structures and this is understandable. But, if a retailer delivers you a quote without including line items that detail your various costs, it is your right as a customer to request more transparency and if necessary, take your business elsewhere.
We hope that this blog post was able to provide some insights into the various processes that commonly confuse countertop shoppers. It’s important that you enter every purchasing process feeling informed and confident, but it’s especially important in big-ticket transactions that occur infrequently.
To recap the points above:
- Distributors act as showrooms that are open to the general public. They will not, however, sell to the general public so you should start your countertop buying process at a retailer. If and when you go to view slabs at a distributor location, you’ll be able to tell them which retailer you’re working with and this is who will ultimately provide you with countertop quotes.
- Regardless of which brands of quartz you’re interested in, each of those brands uses the same general manufacturing processes. We suggest prioritizing your budget and the aesthetic over the claimed performance benefits (as they compare to other quartz brands).
- Many quartz brands sell “white label” products. There is nothing wrong with this but it can be confusing.
- There are two general pricing structure methodologies that retailers use to deliver quotes: “Per Slab” and “Per Square Foot” pricing. One is not inherently better than the other but it’s important to know how they work so that you can ask better questions and be confident in your decision-making.