Armstrong Flooring’s CEO Frank Ready called the other day to chat about his company’s decision to participate in Surfaces early next year. After sitting out the Las Vegas show for the past four years, Armstrong has agreed to set up a product showroom in the Venetian Hotel, a short walk from the show floor. While Ready told me a traditional booth “still does not make sense for us,” the decision to have an official presence at our industry’s most important gathering is very welcome news. It also reflects the company’s determination to battle back against challenges that beset the floor covering business. And Armstrong is not alone. In ways large and small we continue to see key players in this industry take decisive action.

Ready explained to me that Armstrong’s re-appearance at Surfaces was tied to its fundamental philosophy. “Now is the time to make yourself better,” he said. “It gives us a chance to tell our story. In a difficult time like this it also lets us get together and exchange ideas. We are better off for that.”  In recent years, Armstrong officials traveled to Las Vegas to huddle with retailers and others in town for Surfaces. The meeting set for the Sands Expo & Convention Center, Feb. 2-5, 2009, will be different in that Armstrong will be operating under the Surfaces banner.

Bottomline: Instead of piggybacking Surfaces and drawing people away from the show, Armstrong will be giving them yet another reason to attend the 2009 show-that is a big change. The Armstrong showroom will be invitation-only on Feb. 2-3. All show attendees are welcome the afternoon of Feb. 4, and all day on Feb. 5. If Armstrong’s return does not impress you, then at least be pleased that you will have a much shorter walk to their display next February.

Another encouraging sign is the growing number of retailers who are using the down economy to expand. I’m not talking about new store locations (although some are taking advantage of the soft real estate market to do just that). Many are expanding their skill set so they can cast a wider net for business. Topping the list is the commercial segment. Retailers and contractors who have the know-how to corral commercial accounts can more than make up for slumps in their residential business. Those you have done so will tell you that it requires an upgrade of both your technical skills and your business savvy.

This is where our colleague Dave Stafford steps in. Dave told me he is excited to be presenting a three-hour workshop Monday, February 3 beginning at 9 am (workshop, room MO02). It is titled Going Beyond Residential – Expanding into the Commercial Market.  Dave describes the workshop as a hands-on approach to getting started in the commercial arena including the best geographic areas to target, how to win business, deal with commercial mills and make sure you get paid.

Regular readers of Dave’s NFTcolumn Commercial Possibilities, will surely agree that his expertise and commitment to commercial flooring is surpassed by no one. Dave worked as a flooring contractor for more than 20 years before becoming a teacher and consultant. He has enormous credibility. So when he tells me his workshop can fundamentally shift a retailer’s business, I believe him. “I can appreciate that people are trying to save money these days and they may even be reluctant to go to Surfaces,” Dave was saying. “But someone who attends this workshop and applies the information we provide can make enough to cover that investment-and more.”

There are certainly many other encouraging signs in our business. Almost every day we hear from retailers and companies upgrading the products and services they offer. (Keep those emails coming, by the way!) I interviewed a retailer recently who told me he started investing about $1,000 a month to keep his website fresh and compelling. (I’m convinced that’s about $1,000 more than the average retailer invests.) Business has picked considerably and “just about every other customer tells me they came in because of the website.” The best marketing money he ever spent, he told me. 

Encouraging signs, of course, can not conceal the struggles many in our business are seeing, including the huge amount of unsold inventory that is clogging the supply pipeline. But rest assured the spigot will again open, and when it does the people making the investment  now will see a rich payoff down the road. Which reminds me: Have you made reservation to attend Surfaces yet?