For many on hand at the 16th annual Surfaces show in Las Vegas, the accent was on style as exhibitors reminded retailers that theirs is a business driven by fashion and emotion.

Comedian Howie Mandel entertains at the Mannington event.
Taken as a whole, the 1,054 exhibits seen at this year's Surfaces meeting suggested an industry being tugged in two distinct directions. Amid a wave of stylish new flooring products that reflect technological advances and creative innovation, there was an unmistakable undercurrent of lower priced products vying for attention.

Most notably, the growing influence of hardwood and other flooring products manufactured in China was evidenced by the brisk activity seen in The Chinese Pavilion which debuted this year on the upstairs show floor. The presence of more lower-cost floor covering alternatives has fueled concern over the "commoditization" of flooring. Still those focused on more fashion forward products asserted that consumer education and showroom presentation will continue to propel the retailers/contractors business.

In either event, despite the uncharacteristically rainy skies that loomed over Las Vegas for much of the show, the mood was decidedly upbeat as exhibitors, and show goers generally agree that the industry remains in a growth mode. The breadth of new products showcased at Surfaces was widely viewed as evidence of an industry moving forward to accommodate increased consumer demand.

"We are seeing incredible diversity in our industry particularly with the expansion of hard surface product," said D. Christopher Davis, CEO of the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA) which sponsors the annual meeting. He noted that the international component of the show was a byproduct of an industry that is attracting more attention

"I don't think it is revolutionary," Davis added. "It is evolutionary. If you are a retailer at Surfaces you look around and say ‘What should I pick?' More choice means more options for the consumer. That is a good sign for our industry."

Lori Kirk-Rolley marketing director for Daltile demonstrates the company's new display.

"There was certainly no question about the influence of manufacturers from China," added David Alton, president of interior design consultants DCA Enterprises,Portola Hills, CA and president of the WFCA. "I do a fairly high end business but I think some of the manufacturers focusing on the low price points may be missing the business if they want to make it just about price."

"I saw the Chinese importers and I'm not impressed, but they are important," agreed Stan Shniderman, president of Gordon Floor Covering, a Los Angeles-based retailer which has operated since 1923. "They are doing on the manufacturing level what Home Depot is doing on the retailer level: They are making everything about price. That means you have to speak to your clients and show the difference between veneer on plywood and something that is 5 ply."

Installer Jim Walker (left) is inducted into the WFCA Hall of Fame by the association's president David Alton.

In general, major manufacturers at the show agree that discussions centered primarily on price may not portend a healthy direction for specialty retailers. A strong housing market and renewed interest in adding value to older homes have fueled interest in quality flooring products. Fashion forward designs and resilient flooring that matches the look of more costly stone and tiles designs was a higher priority for big name brands that opted to appear at the show.

"There is still a quality problem with many of the lower priced products and there is some concern about that," said Tarkett Commercial's vice president of marketing, Diane Martel. "Obviously Asian importers have a number of advantages: Their labor is cheaper and there are fewer [manufacturing] regulations. You can always find cheaper product but a lot of innovation is coming out of the U.S."

Frank Bielec, a designer on the TV show "Trading Spaces" at the Tarkett exhibit.

She noted, for example, Tarkett used to the show to promote PermaStone, a product it introduced one year ago. It also featured an appearance from Frank Bielec, from "Trading Spaces" on The Learning Channel.

Making a case for a new collection of high-end hardwood flooring was the mission for Kultur, a Renfrew, Ontario company making its Surfaces debut. According to Emile Zmenck, managing partner for the company, Kultur saw an opportunity to making hardwood floors with a high quality log. "The length of our planks is 4-feet long instead of 2 1/2 -feet, which is typical," said Zmenck. What we saw in the flooring industry is a need for a high quality product. We have been close to capacity with our production. We knew there was a lot of opportunity in this industry."

At a ribbon cutting to kick off the show are (from left to right) Michelle Troop, Surfaces show director; David Alton, WFCA president; Wendell Prescott, Jr., WFCA chairman; Donny Phillips, WFCA corp. secretary and Aaron Pirner, WFCA president-elect.

Many of the exhibits at the show also sought to gain ground at retail with new in-store merchandising systems. Popular themes included mobility that enables a retailer to position the display anywhere in the store, not just against a wall. Also, many of the displays have been designed with more "self service" elements in mind. Products are easy to remove from the display and usually have to a list of easy-to-understand benefits.

Surfaces attendees sort through carpet samples at the Beaulieu of America exhibit.

"Our whole effort is designed to help dealers sell most tile," explained Lori Kirk-Rolley, director of marketing for Dal-Tile, which used the show to tout a new point of purchase display called "Tile and Stone for the Home."

Showgoers visit the Tarkett booth.

"We feel the expectations of the home owner have been elevated, but they can also feel overwhelmed by all the products available, said Kirk-Rolley "This (display) lets them shop by looking at the type of tile and where it would be used in the home."

For its part, Stainmaster tried to cozy up to retailers with a raffle that awarded an in-store appearance by the designer Vern Yip, host of the TV show "Trading Spaces" who will also star on the forthcoming NBC show "Home Intervention."

D. Christopher Davis, CEO of World Floor Covering Assoc., (left) is greeted by Tom Davis, CEO of Mannington Mills, at the company's reception.

"Shows like ‘Trading Spaces' give consumers the idea that maybe they should look to do something new in their home," said Yip. "But often from the consumers standpoint, they don't know what to pick when they look at 200 types of carpet. That's where you can really help them when they come into the store."

Showgoers get a hands-on demonstration at the Installation Showcase sponsored by NFT and WFCA.

At Crossville, the company's new porcelain line, Color Blox, is unusual in that its colors were specifically developed to coordinate with the color palette of carpet manufacturer Bentley Prince Street.

Flamenco dancers at the Venteak booth demonstrate the durability of the company's hardwood floors.

Although many retailers said they were impressed with the array of new product options, as always, there was lingering concern about trying out new products or vendors. Most said they have learned to maintain a sharp focus at the show and exercise caution when making buying decisions.

NFT's Howard Olansky (center) moderates a presentation featuring Dan Hussey of B&L Flooring America (at podium) and Sam O'Krent of O'Krent's Abbey Flooring Center.

"I only look for quality and tune everything else out," said Sam O'Krent, CEO of O'Krent's a 90-year old retail operation in San Antonio, Texas. "I already know the vendors I like to deal with. There are a ton of new guys at the show. It is scary to jump into something new. I'll let the other guys make the mistakes first."