News flash: The countertop industry is confusing! Even for the professionals that operate in the construction industry, the factors that drive pricing, lead times, and material availability are mostly opaque. For homeowners that require the services of the countertop industry once every 10-20 years, “nightmare” is a description we hear frequently. For the average homeowner, simply understanding where to start the countertop purchasing process, let alone navigating its idiosyncracies, can prove a feat unto itself.
If you’re looking for guidance on how to buy countertops, you’re not alone. “Who sells countertops?” is one of Google’s most queried countertop-related searches, and as you’ve probably already discovered, the results are anything but straightforward.
For our readers interested in a quick answer, we shan’t bury the lede: Countertop retailers sell countertops. But this is a broad category. Countertop retailers include big-box stores (like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Floor & Decor, Ikea, etc.), Kitchen & Bath Showrooms (usually independently owned stores that sell flooring, cabinets, tile, and other interior finishes), and Countertop Fabrication Shops (the folks that actually cut and install countertops).
This article is intended to introduce you to the world of countertops: How it all works, who sells them, and who you should be buying from.
But first, let's identify the players that make up this mystifying industry…
The Countertop Supply Chain 101: A Who's Who in the Countertop Industry
So that you can better navigate the countertop industry, let’s get a better understanding of the groups that comprise its supply chain.
At its core, the countertop supply chain follows the same pattern of commerce that you’re probably familiar with:
Manufacturers (produce goods) => Distributors (provide warehousing, transport, and fulfillment)= > Retailers (where you spend your hard-earned money) => Customers (the handsome individual reading this article)
At the top of the supply chain, manufacturers produce the surfacing materials that are used in the creation of countertops— namely natural stone and man-made stone slabs.
Manufacturers of natural stones like granite, marble, and quartzite quarry giant blocks of stone from the earth and refine them down into giant stone slabs.
Manufacturers of man-made stones like quartz, sintered stone, and porcelain create solid stone slabs from scratch using stone aggregates and resin.
Both types of manufacturers sell their respective slab goods in bulk to distributors.
You'll know you're at a distributor location if you see hundreds of stone slabs neatly displayed. If you see countertops being cut, you're at a countertop fabrication shop!
Distributors in the countertop industry warehouse stone slabs and sell them to retailers (who then turn them into your countertops). Seems like status quo distributor behavior, right?
Here’s where it gets confusing: Unlike in other industries, distributors in the countertop industry also play a customer-facing role. Distributors act as showrooms where customers can view stone slabs and select them for use in their countertop projects.
If you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Stone slabs are very large, heavy, and fragile, and most retailers don't have the floor space or the specialty equipment to handle and showcase the thousands of stone slab options available on the market.
Instead, retailers can send their customers directly to a distributor to view stone slabs and make selections. As we’ll discuss later, this creates a ton of customer confusion. For now, just remember this: though you the customer can view stone slabs directly at a distributor’s warehouse, they will not sell you the stone slabs directly, nor will they provide you pricing.
After all, distributors sell slabs to retailers. The retailers sell you, the customer, the installed countertops.
Many companies can sell you countertops, but not all retailers are equal…
Big Box Stores and Kitchen & Bath Showrooms:
Countertop retailers come in many shapes and sizes. You can buy countertops from your neighborhood big box store, or you can buy countertops from the independent “kitchen and bath” retailer down the street. You can even buy countertops from certain furniture stores!