Home Channel News

June 3, 2002

Wallpaper Aims to Recover Customers Lost to Paint

By Robyn Taylor Parets

Talk about a comeback. In the last year, wallcoverings have returned to the consumer spotlight after experiencing lackluster sales since the mid-90s.

“Wallpaper sales are coming back strong,” said Jeanne Babel, owner of Babel’s Paint & Decorating in Norwood, Ma., which runs three retail stores and a contractor’s outlet.

Faux finishes, antiqued patinas, crackled leather, and French-influenced designs have all helped wallcoverings recapture some of the market share lost to paint. “Wallpaper today is not like your grandmother’s,” said Betty Lydon, product development manager at York Wallcoverings.

“We are seeing more interest in nature-inspired patterns and textural designs, as well as the use of subtle to vibrant colors,” said Carolyn Resar, senior director of marketing at Imperial Home Decor Group (IHDG.)

In fact, IHDG experienced higher monthly sales in March than in any of the previous 12 months. Dan Collins, IHDG’s vp-sales, national accounts, attributes this to the fact that the wallpaper industry has responded to consumer design trends with hot new looks. In addition, consumers are not as transient and are spending more time at home. This means people are finally deciding to cover white walls.

“You can’t talk about decorating trends without talking about living trends,” said Sharon Hanby-Robie, spokesperson for the Wallpaper Council and an interior designer.

For years, people were more concerned about the resale value of their homes and often kept their walls neutral colors, with no personality. “Now, especially after September 11, the nesting instinct has settled back in. People are starting to unpack,” said Hanby-Robie.

Indeed, the wallpaper industry has had a tough uphill battle and it has finally reached the summit. The business began spiraling downward about nine years ago, when the paint industry made a big retail push with all sorts of accessories to help consumers faux finish in all sorts of styles, from sponging, to rag rolling, to marbleizing. The craze caught on and home centers still offer how-to faux finish clinics and stock a wide range of sundries to complete the popular DIY job, including sponges, feathers, wood-graining tools, and prepackaged kits for stenciling, creating granite reproductions, and more.

“In my 23 years with Imperial, I’ve seen the industry go through different cycles. But this time the downmarket was longer than in the past mainly because of faux finish painting,” said Collins.

The wallpaper industry literally had to reinvent itself and it began by launching a wide range of borders about seven years ago. “Borders were the industry’s salvation,” he said.

But borders, which compliment paint and are one of the hottest selling wallpaper items in home centers, weren’t enough to resurrect the wallcoverings business. Taking a hint from the paint industry, wallpaper manufacturers hired designers to come up with new faux finish sidewall styles. In addition, the industry addressed a major issue among consumers: the fear of stripping paper off the walls. Vendors tackled this by introducing new products to make the removal process much easier, said Nicholas Cichielo, publisher of Paint & Decorating Retailer magazine.

The industry is about to take that one step further. Some manufacturers are gearing up to introduce wallcoverings that can be literally peeled off the walls, said Cichielo.

Sidewalls that are strippable and scrubbable is what DIYers have been looking for. And, although faux finish painting is still considered an easier project than hanging wallpaper, many consumers are buying their own wallpaper and hiring a professional to hang it. Also, many DIYers will combine a paint and wallpaper project by incorporating a painted room with borders. Or they’ll buy textured wallpaper that they can paint right over, said Cichielo.

“Wallpaper has always been a great partner for Benjamin Moore. Sometimes people will wallpaper one room and paint the rest,” said Regina Whelan, color marketing manager at Benjamin Moore.

In fact, Benjamin Moore sales have also increased over the past few months and Whelan says this is because consumers are turning their homes into a haven and are no longer afraid to experiment with color and texture.

Building #19, which has 14 bargain basement stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, has watched its wallpaper sales surge by 37% this quarter compared to the same period last year, said Jerry Georgio, who runs the wallpaper departments at Building #19.

The stores, which sell wallpaper at discount prices, stock 1,000 skus of borders and 150 sidewall skus. Georgio buys most of his papers through Brewster Wallcovering Co., which also sells borders and wallpaper to Home Depot and specialty stores.

Although paint will always be popular, “there has definitely been a swing back to wallpaper. Consumers are staying home and updating,” he said.

High Style Takes Off

In addition to top-selling architectural styles, many consumers are also gravitating to new sophisticated looks, said Paula Berberian, creative services manager at Brewster.

This includes large patterns and bolder colors. It also encompasses exotic, worldly designs. In fact, toiles -- French-inspired landscape scenes on contrasting white or cream-colored backgrounds -- are some of the fastest moving sidewalls at Babel’s, which sells 50 percent of its home decor products to DIYers, 35 percent to contractors and 15 percent to industrial accounts, said Babel.

Some of the more popular IHDG styles include designer Raymond Waites’ “Tuscany”, which evokes images of Tuscany’s finest villages and pristine landscapes. Waites’ “Aubusson” collection depicts elegant floral designs from the 17th century villas of noble France. The unusual collection also includes dramatic faux finishes and architectural columns. Also hot right now is David Carter Brown’s “In the Country” collection, which reflects country landscapes with rural scenes, cross-stitch patterns and whimsical farm animals.

“I have never seen finer quality artistic expressions” than in today’s wallpaper styles, said Hanby-Robie.

Debbi Karpowicz Kickham, a writer working on her third book, called “My Faux Chateau,” is perhaps the ultimate DIY consumer. To research her book, which focuses on remodeling her Westwood, Ma. home to create a luxury-for-less Mediterranean chateau, Karpowicz Kickham has shopped at Home Depot, Expo, Lowe’s, Building #19, and Babel’s -- all in search of the perfect wallpapers. She has used Neoclassical, French country, and Italian wallpaper designs to evoke the feeling of a real European villa.

“A lot of people think wallpaper is still just florals. But that’s not true and there’s so much you can do with wallpaper,” said Karpowicz Kickham, who has also used wallpaper art designs from manufacturer Seabrook Wallcoverings to compliment her walls. These include Neoclassical urns and columns that can be adhered right to the wallcoverings.

More than Borders

This time around, the wallpaper industry is determined not to let sales slide. In conjunction with new sidewall designs, this means constantly creating new variations on popular borders, as well as other types of wall accents.

Although borders aren’t just for kids’ rooms anymore, children’s borders are much more decorative than ever before, tying in bottom and top designs with art accents to create the effect of a mural. York, for instance, sells treehouse and pirate ship border/accent kits that combine borders with prepasted images. Likewise, IHDG sells three-piece border kits that are perfect for painted wall surfaces. These include a jungle package which comes with a wide border for the baseboard, a top border that resembles a canopy of trees, and vertical tree trunks and vines, said Collins.

Beyond the kids’ rooms, popular borders include those that simulate crown moldings, raised panel wainscoting, and chair rails, said Lydon at York.

Prepasted murals are also becoming hotter than ever. York’s “Art Accents” and “Picture Perfect” lines include trompe l’oeil doors, hutches, and windows leading out to gardens. IHDG is also currently developing a trompe l’oeil line which will include realistic looking images like windows looking out onto the ocean, said Collins.

These murals are simple DIY projects and enable consumers to create instant scenery without spending a fortune, said Babel.

Thinking outside the box, IHDG recently unveiled its “Walls My Way” line to appeal to younger consumers. These approximately 12 by 12 inch squares look like framed art and can be stuck right on the wall. “Walls My Way” cost $10 to $12 a piece and give people a great alternative to buying expensive art. The program is about to be rolled out to 800 Wal-Mart stores, said Collins.

IDHG also introduced “Instant Stencils” at the August Hardware Show. These popular rub-on designs let DIYers achieve the look of hand-painted art.

“If we’re not going to get the traditional wallpaper sale, we’ll come up with alternatives,” said Collins.