Not long after Home Depot launched its Expo Design Centers back in 1991, I visited one. It had a half dozen floors of home furnishing, the whole ball of wax including floor coverings. The products were reasonably well displayed in departments by product types. Some "experts" even predicted the demise of the floor covering specialty store. The big boxes were going to take over the world, they said. But I wasn't worried then or now about floor covering stores that focus on the basics.

In May, Home Depot announced the closure of 20 Expo Centers. Of those 15 were to be shuttered (gonesville) and five would be converted to Home Depot's standard format. Those 20 closures represented a significant portion of the Expo Centers in operation and the decision to shut them speaks volumes about what consumers really want and why the floor covering specialty retailer continues to enjoy a tremendous advantage over the big boxes.

The key to success for retailers and contractors in the competitive world: Focus on the many strengths of the floor covering specialist. It comes as no surprise that customer service tops the list-and that means superb service in every part of an operation by every member of the team. Service and knowledge distinguish the floor covering specialist from the big boxes. Always has. For the most part, the big boxes flunk when it comes to service and knowledge. These are both essential when you move beyond price-is-everything products and sell better goods.

One thing we know for certain is service is a key factor. So why keep talking about it? I'll tell you why: Because the greatest voids in business today are lack of service and product knowledge. Unfortunately these issues are prevalent across all retail channels. If you've shopped your local retail stores I'll give you odds that more times than not you've been distraught by the their lack of knowledge and meaningful service. When you do find a store that gets high marks for both you feel like jumping up and clicking your heels.

If you are looking for an excuse for a floor covering store's lacking of service and knowledge, forget it. There is no excuse for it, not today. It's a world with virtually unlimited opportunities for one and all. No store has to stand alone. There are allies all around, ready, able and willing to partner with you; to open the doors to honing the tools of selling, marketing, management - and the list goes on.

For example, there are buying groups, franchises, associations, manufacturer's partnerships, distributor partnerships, seminars and technical/installation/sales training programs. And you won't have to look far. Many are right in your backyard.

Yes, when push comes to shove, even the big boxes with their deep pockets and buying power cannot compete with the skilled floor covering retailer who makes service and knowledge part and parcel of the operation - and is committed to selling quality and not bottom feeding on price sensitive products.

It's not just price, it's also delivering value with the vehicle riding smoothly on the wheels of good service and knowledge that gives the floor covering specialist the upper hand.