At last month's Surfaces in Las Vegas this much was clear: The industry is becoming stronger, faster and leaner-and everybody knows it. The show hit a homerun not because show organizers managed to outdraw all 16 previous shows or because there were more exhibitors than ever clamoring for attention. More and more, those who rely on retailer support are viewing the business through the eyes of the people who run the stores and sell to consumers.

The products and services created by this approach shed light on how the flooring business operates these days. Here, then, are a few observations based on what I saw at Surfaces

Technology is our friend (really)

I was delighted, and admittedly a bit surprised, to find a near full-house for a panel discussion I moderated. Three sharp flooring retailers talked about how they have successfully incorporated B2B technology into their operation. It was late in the day and I-never a computer guy-was wondering who'd be drawn to a 90-minute dissertation on technology after a full day of booth hopping.

Luckily the audience recognized the value. Many had already installed the technology and needed advice on how to optimize it. One panel member, explained with obvious enthusiasm that it took him a few key strokes to adjust his entire inventory to reflect rising wholesale prices. Heads nodded. He didn't invest in the system because he loves technology-he did it because it made his life easier. More heads nodded. An audience member who was asked if he had installed a B2B system sheepishly said "No." He quickly refined his answer to "Not yet."

Industry groups are getting aggressive

The many trade organizations and buying co-ops at the show were clearly taking nothing for granted.

The World Floor Covering Association's exhibit was a beehive of activity as the venerable trade group asked retailers to explore a new breakthrough web-based service called "Creating Your Space." The idea is to engage shoppers and expose then to new products geared toward their needs. The technology in effect plays matchmaker between the consumer's wallet and the retailer's cash register.

Laminate flooring is a "new" category

How realistic looking is the new generation of laminate flooring? Remember that old ad: "Is it live, or is it Memorex"? The Mannington exhibit had its own version: Side-by-side samples of new wood, laminate and vinyl flooring products. Visitors were challenged to figure out which was which. It was difficult to tell even when you ran your finger across them, which says a lot about the look and feel of the new products.

But credit for truly advancing the category goes to Faus. Its new FastDesign technology facilitates designs heretofore unavailable in laminate: including herringbones, diamonds and spirals. They have given the floor a seamless visual from plank to plank.

The big guys still move fast

There may be giants in the business but there are no lumbering giants. The biggest companies are keenly aware that their market share is being targeted by emerging competition. The response of the big boys is not to simply pump out more products. Most have been leveraging their position and building on their platform. They are protecting their turf with more enticing incentives, high profile marketing and, most important, better products. Retailers and consumers are the winners. The smaller companies will just have to run faster if they want to keep up.

KC and the Sunshine Band is hot (really)

The band that gave us the 70's classic "Shake Your Booty" entertained at Tarkett's party on the eve of the show. I never liked that dumb song and I never liked disco, but I never had a better time at an industry bash. Thanks Tarkett!