Retailing is all about image, and nothing sets the tone of a store - or the entire mall for that matter - like the choice of flooring. "We like to say that the floor covering is the canvas on which the rest of the store is painted," says Edward Korczak, executive director of the National Wood Flooring Association, Ellisville, Mo.

For one thing, there is just so much of it. "We've found that people tend to look down a lot more than they look up," says Everett Hatcher, executive vice president of Crawford McWilliams Hatcher Architects, a Birmingham, Ala.-based firm that specializes in mall design.

"So if you want to put in some upscale touches, the floor is the place to do it. In fact, most of the dollars we spend on retail renovations tend to be spent on upgrading the floors. Many times half the renovation budget goes there because floors are such a big-ticket item."

Certainly there are plenty of choices in flooring. But there is no one perfect flooring material for every situation. The area of the country, the type of mall and the weather are just a few of the factors that affect the final selection. It may seem like a battle between aesthetic choices of the designer and price concerns of the developer, but it is more complicated than that.

There are liability issues, for example. "Think of the litigious age in which we live," Hatcher continues. "One of the predominate considerations in choosing a flooring has become, 'Is this material appropriate from the liability standpoint?' 'Does it have the proper co-efficient of friction so it does not precipitate slips and falls?' If it's outside, 'Does this material get slippery when wet?' These are very important considerations."

Liability is an uppermost concern, agrees Andrew Dodge, vice president of Gerbert Ltd., exclusive distributor for Lancaster, Pa.-based Dodge-Regupol, which manufactures super-resilient flooring from old tires. "Malls have huge liability issues with slip-and-fall cases," Dodge says. "If you have a comfortable, resilient floor, you have a reduction in overall liability. Developers don't want to talk about that, but it's better not to see your customers carried out on stretchers."

Image also remains a serious factor in the equation. Stores that pride themselves on their bargains opt for plain pipe racks, industrial-looking fluorescent lighting and inexpensive flooring - or even bare cement - to prove they are passing on savings to customers.

At the other end of the spectrum, upscale malls use luxury materials to attract upscale customers. "When the budget permits, that's probably marble," says Jennifer Sweas, color/material specialist at Oakbrook, Ill.-based Schafer Associates design firm. "Or it may be porcelain or ceramic tile, which is very attractive and has good durability."

Sweas points out that a luxurious floor plays a key role in setting the image and atmosphere of the mall itself. That's why so many older malls that have grown tired and dingy turn to stone and ceramic during renovation to upgrade the image.

Often, the renovation plan also specifies a lighter color flooring. "The lighter the floor, the grander the space looks and the more open and inviting it will seem to the consumer," she says. "Dark floors unconsciously convey the feeling of dirt and uncleaned space."

Hatcher agrees. "We are using more neutral colors these days. There is a tendency to try to lighten the color palette. We also raise the light level by using the reflectivity of the flooring surface to give the perception of more light.

"If you go to older malls with dark flooring," he continues, "the light levels always seem too low. Twenty-five years ago, they used lots of brown and other dark floor colors which now look so dingy. It really changes your perception of the place. So developers are taking them out and replacing them with lighter tones."

There is also a psychological factor at work, since, as Hatcher claims, lighter areas make consumers feel safer and more secure. Psychologists have done entire studies about the effect of color and materials on consumers.

Very few shoppers are savvy enough to realize what's happening, but sub-consciously they feel rushed in some areas and relaxed in others. "Color and pattern draw the eye to the floor and convey the idea that it's upscale and fresh," Sweas says. "A lot of the time, whether the customer knows it or not, the floor is driving the traffic by way of pattern or multiple colors. It's a psychological marriage between customer and floor."

A mix of pattern has been met with a mix of materials in many retail environments. "The biggest trend in commercial installation is the multitude of different floorings used together," says Christopher Davis, chief executive officer of the World Floor Covering Association, Anaheim, Calif. "Flooring remains the critical part of the image projected in a retail space and creates the backdrop for the sale of your merchandise.

"But the news is the way these materials are being combined. They direct traffic flow, and the change of materials can section off a store without using walls. It keeps an open look while defining the space."

Davis, whose organization oversees all types of flooring, says there is no one particular fashion trend at the moment or even one hot color. "Except perhaps for celery tones," he says. "There is much more interest in subtle textures and neutral colorations like soft earth tones."

Again, these colors tend to be lighter and brighter, which creates definite maintenance problems. In fact, maintenance costs are one of the major factors put into the equation for flooring choices.

Some materials, even the more costly ones, are so easy to maintain that it makes up for their high initial cost. Other floorings are less expensive up front but must be refinished, stripped and resealed, or steam cleaned at some point.

"Maintenance is a factor, a huge factor," Sweas says. "It can take a little time or a lot of time, so I select products that are durable and fairly easy to clean. If there is a lot of food traffic, you have to make sure the material is sealed properly."

Designers stress that, because maintenance costs are such a big factor, developers and managers must know what they are getting into. "A big part of the selection is whether or not the owner understands the care involved," Hatcher says. "There's nothing worse than a consumer coming in who sees a floor that hasn't been properly cleaned. You can use the best material in the world, but if it's not cared for, you've wasted your money."

Donna Childs, senior associate at the Atlanta-based architectural firm of Thompson Ventulett Stainback & Associates, agrees. "Everyone likes the look of the natural stone products. And they're great! But the owner has to buy into maintaining them. They are more labor intensive and therefore costly to keep clean. But they have a classy look that porcelain - which is far easier to maintain - can't achieve."

She says good maintenance is key. "As designers, we have to tell [our clients] up front what they are buying and what it involves, i.e.: 'Do you know what it means to own a marble floor?' They may love the look and then find the operations budget is up a million dollars a year, which they hadn't planned on. So you have to get them involved from the beginning."

The true cost of the flooring, then, becomes much more than the cost of the material, which complicates price comparisons. There are many factors to consider: initial material price, installation cost, material longevity and maintenance expense.

The result is an equation that would give Einstein pause. Some materials are fairly inexpensive but installation costs are high. Other floorings have a high up-front cost but last forever. Others are fairly inexpensive but must be replaced frequently. And of course there is that maintenance factor. To complicate the math further, some materials are priced by the square foot and others by the square yard.

There are trade-offs, especially if image is important. Fortunately, there is a flooring for every situation, and the final selection is really a matter of common sense, Davis says. "It's like choosing a flooring for your own home. What you put in the high-traffic hallway and stairs - with kids and dogs running up and down 50,000 times a day - is very different from what you put in the guest bedroom that you enter only once a month."

It's the same with commercial installations. "There are pros and cons with all types of flooring. You just have to figure out what works with the lifestyle and situation and budget," Davis continues. "You may love the look of marble but can't afford it."

But even that is no longer the insurmountable problem it once was. "The most interesting thing that's happened in the past few years is that each type of flooring attempts to mimic another material," he says. "There is so much interest in texture that you have a lot of that. There are faux finishes that look like marble and ceramic that looks like wood or stone. There are new laminates that look like wood, marble or ceramic and vinyls that mimic plank flooring so accurately that you can only tell by touching it. Everyone is jumping into everyone else's territory."

And apparently, judging by the acceptance of this flurry of floor coverings, everyone is landing on both feet.

Architects and designers stress that there is a time and place for each type of flooring. For obvious reasons, carpeting and even wood are generally specified for the actual retail store environment. The large, high-traffic public areas of malls require something far more durable. These hard-surface materials can range from the upscale marble down to the most basic concrete with a variety of choices in between.

Concrete is certainly the least expensive and most basic, since it's probably there as subflooring anyway. Most malls would limit raw concrete to the parking garage, but there are actually engineered cements and concrete toppings that offer an attractive look with design flexibility and low maintenance.

Then there are the cast concrete products. "These days, most malls are enclosed, but when you are working with an open-air center, you have to find something that is cost effective and will withstand the elements," says Everett Hatcher, executive vice president of Crawford McWilliams Hatcher Architects, a Birmingham, Ala.-based architectural firm that specializes in mall design. "We often use the stamped or cast concrete products there."

Terrazzo is another sturdy choice. As Jennifer Sweas, color/material specialist at Oakbrook, Ill.-based Schafer Associates design firm, says, "When you are doing a mall floor, you need something very durable because of the traffic flow. Around the entrance, especially, a poured material like an epoxy system or terrazzo would be best."

Mall designers often cite area of the country as a factor in flooring choice. That can mean a matter of regional taste but also includes weather. Any area prone to snow or a lot of rain requires an easy-to-maintain, hard-surface flooring, at least in the entryways.

Ceramic tile and the new porcelain tiles certainly meet those requirements. "Ceramic tile is a very stable product," says Robert Daniels, executive director of the Tile Council of America, Anderson, S.C. "It doesn't absorb water and is therefore very sanitary, easy to clean, and it lasts forever. You can see tile from ancient Rome, put in 2,000 years ago, and it's still in good shape if the building is intact. Tile also has a low thermal and water co-efficient of expansion and contraction, which is why many codes actually require it in kitchens."

Ditto for food courts, where food spills will be a problem, and in restroom areas. "Tile is beautiful and has a high-end effect, but the fact that it can be kept clean so easily is the real advantage," Daniels says.

The use of ceramic tile in America - in residential as well as commercial use - has grown considerably. But this country still has a way to go. Daniels says Americans "consume" 5 sq. ft. of tile per person per year, while in Portugal, that figure is 40 sq. ft.

He also claims the market for ceramic tile has been on a straight growth line since 1990. "In 1996, tile sales were 1.5 billion sq. ft., and [sales] should pass 2 billion sq. ft. by the year 200l."

The growth is attributable to ceramic tile's fashionable, luxurious image and surprisingly inexpensive cost. Maintenance consists of a neutral cleaner and water, and ceramic is a master of disasters. "Ceramic withstands both heat and water. We've seen cases where the ceramic floor has withstood floods and even fires," Daniels says.

Although ceramic tile has traditionally been used outdoors in mild, Mediterranean-type climates, that's not recommended in areas with a freeze-thaw cycle. But when used indoors, it's an ideal foil for bad weather, be it tracked in snow or beachfront flooding.

Ceramic is also a flexible material, lending itself to a variety of looks, colors, sizes and shapes. "There is a wide variety of design options," Daniels says. "Even the mosaics and old patterns of ancient Greece and Rome are coming back. And designers can do so much with ceramic in terms of colors and layouts. And with the technology of water-jet cutting, they can do all sorts of murals and insets and logos."

One of the most interesting new developments in this very old industry is the emergence of porcelain tiles. In some cases, they are replacing both quarry tile and traditional glazed products. These tiles are generally produced in a larger size format suitable for large mall areas. Because of their composition, most porcelain tiles can even be used outdoors. In comparison to glazed tiles, the vibrancy of color is limited. However, since the color goes through the entire tile, it won't wear off or chip.

As for liability, these unpolished porcelain tiles offer slip resistance that meet ADA standards. Porcelain tiles are also very good at mimicking other materials including marble, limestone and wood.

Ceramic has its disadvantages, but many of these are being overcome. "There are technological improvements, but they are evolutionary, not revolutionary," Daniels says. "Tile today can be larger in size with a more consistent flatness, which makes it easier to install."

Glaze ratings have also been going up, which is important in high traffic areas. "Retailers are turning to a Grade 5 glaze, which has over 15 times the wear rating of a Grade 4." Ceramic has long been considered something of a luxury flooring, but thanks to improved technology, the price has actually come down in real terms. And Daniels claims that because ceramic lasts so long, it is actually the lowest cost flooring available.

The downside is installation. The industry admits to a shortage of qualified installers, and the cost of installation often exceeds the cost of the tile itself, especially on smaller jobs with intricate cutting and fitting.

Floors also have to be properly prepared. "You don't want to have a flexible floor or buildings moving in the wind," he says. "Tile is very strong but it's not flexible so the floor preparation is critically important."

Tile has been criticized for its cold, hard feeling, which may be more a problem in residential installations than commercial ones, and for its grout getting dingy and discolored. "But there are new epoxy grouts on the market that offer an impervious surface that acts just like tile. The installers have to know how to handle it," Daniels cautions. "But the manufacturers claim it solves the old grout problem."

The last category of hard-surface floorings features natural stone, including a variety of limestones, granites, slates and marble. There is no question that these natural products are the status floors, beloved by upscale, fashion-conscious shoppers.

Malls geared to the carriage trade know these customers will be attracted to such luxury materials, and developers feel the high maintenance costs are a small price to pay. "When you're developing an upper-end shopping center, the clients feel that stone is the only material that will get those shoppers in there. Stone has a rich classy feeling," says Donna Childs, senior associate at the Atlanta-based architectural firm of Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates.

She says these natural materials always project an upscale image, even though they can have a more casual mood. "If you use 12x12s in a classic drop-down pattern, it will seem formal. If you use random sizes in an ashlar pattern, it will feel more casual."

Because stone is a natural, durable material, it is tempting to think it can be used both indoors and out. But that's not the case. "You can't really use stone outside because of the ADA and friction requirements," Childs explains. "You are limited to stone with a sand-blasted or acid finish, and those don't work well inside because they are so hard to maintain."

And finally, there is that lush, natural marble. Most people see this as the ultimate luxury floor, yet Vincent R. Migliore, technical director of the Columbus, Ohio-based Marble Institute of America, claims that some marbles can be installed for under $10 per sq. ft. "The price is very competitive, and the durability is unquestioned. The only problem we've ever had with marble floors is that they last so long people get tired of them."

Those in the marble business insist that their material is virtually maintenance free, requiring only a simple washing. Designers, however, warn that maintenance can be more complicated, especially in busy areas where the high polish will be worn down.

Developers anxious for the luxurious look of marble are willing to accept that. They are enchanted by the texture, color and random patterns that have made marble so popular.

"Every color gets its moment in the spotlight, Migliore says. "You can almost date the jobs by the color of the materials." Currently the most popular marbles are those in the beige, tan and white family, along with black and the multi-colored stones officially called "variegated."

Marbles used commercially are generally in 12x12-inch and 18x18-inch sizes in 3/8-inch to 5/8-inch thickness. Most installation is done on slabs or mudset. "My family has been in this business for 157 years and we don't see a downside to stone," he says. "The only caveat is that marble has to be properly installed. So make sure the workers are familiar with the material and have installed it before."

Some people think that resilient flooring has gone the way of avocado kitchen appliances. But it's still around and doing nicely, thank you.

Except for some new rubber products, most resilient flooring is actually vinyl. This is a plastic product first developed in 1963 and is quite different from its predecessor, linoleum. Small quantities of linoleum, which is made from linseed oil, are still being manufactured, but linoleum is harder to stand on and more difficult to maintain.

According to Walter Anderson, managing director of the Resilient Floorcovering Institute, Rockville, Md., vinyl is popular in boutiques and specialty stores because of its wide range of colors and patterns. It is also easy to customize with patterns, insets or store logos.

There are two main types of vinyl floors. Printed vinyl is made by imprinting a design on a film over a vinyl base, which can contain fillers for durability. For high-traffic, commercial installations, solid vinyl is more popular because the color and pattern go through the entire thickness.

Vinyl is available as both sheet flooring, with prices calculated by the square yard, and in tiles, where prices are calculated by the square foot. "The advantage of tiles is that you can replace a single square if it becomes damaged," Anderson says. Cigarette burns used to be a real problem before the non-smoking era. "We also had problems with stiletto heels, but fortunately they've gone out of fashion."

Resilient flooring is modestly priced, about $12 to $40 per yard (not foot) and inexpensive to install. Generally, it is thought to be comfortable and resilient to walk and stand on. Maintenance requirements include damp mopping, and sweeping or vacuuming to remove potentially abrasive dirt and grit. And once or twice a year, the floor needs to be stripped and re-polished.

But as Anderson says, "If a vinyl floor is well maintained, the life expectancy is quite good, even in high traffic areas. [Vinyl] tile can last 25 to 30 years as long as the proper finish is applied as needed."

Technology has offered new and improved vinyls with an increased range of colors and patterns, including faux materials that mimic marble, granite and wood, including some sold by the plank, not the square.

Anderson notes that the real news in this market is not the material itself but the adhesives used to install it. "Manufacturers of adhesives have switched from products with high levels of VOC [volatile organic compounds] to water-solvent adhesives with very low levels [of VOC]. Any odor dissipates quickly, which is important in store renovations."

The one downside to vinyl is that it can be slippery when wet, although new slip-resistant products have come on the market. Interestingly, one of the most slip-resistant floor coverings is a resilient product made from recycled tires. There are numerous ecological advantages here, since tire dumps have become serious problems in some areas. They are ugly and cause serious pollution problems if they catch fire.

This type of flooring is ideal in noisy situations because it dampens vibrations and is soft underfoot. The slip-resistance co-efficients are way beyond those demanded by the ADA, even on ramps. Installation is an advantage as well, since this product fully cures in 12 hours compared to two or three days for conventional resilient floors.

Wood is listed among the oldest floorings, yet it is still one of the most popular. Nothing beats this natural material for warmth and the beautiful random patterning of the grain. It's also resilient to walk on - or jump on, as any ballet dancer or basketball player can attest.

Wood floors also have an elegance beloved by customers and retailers alike. "Wood flooring carries the motif and style of the store itself," says Edward Korczak, executive director of the National Wood Flooring Association, Ellisville, Mo. "There are two main types used in retail today. Stores with a contemporary look like the 2 1/4-inch widths, while those with a more rustic, Early American mood are using the 3-inch, 5-inch or 6-inch widths."

Wood flooring products break down into two basic types. Solid wood is just that and is generally 3/4 inch thick. But a new type of engineered wood can run from 1/2 inch to 5/16 inch and consists of three to five plies of wood, stacked crosswise. The alternated grains make the wood very strong, and the top layer contains the veneer of the specialty wood desired.

Popular woods at the moment include exotics like Brazilian cherry, santos mahogany, wenge and bamboo as well as ash, maple and hickory/pecan (which is considered the same specialty). Trend-wise, the look has veered away from the once-popular dark tones and into the lighter, natural looks topped with clear finishes. "That allows you to see the beauty of the grain," Korczak says. Finishes can be high gloss or semi-gloss with the majority in the semi-gloss category.

The new engineered woods have a resistance to the expansion and constraint in moist areas, so it's easily glued to a concrete slab subfloor, or it can be stapled to a wooden subfloor. "And these products have a lot of dimensional stability," he says.

The finish on wood can be done in two ways. "It can come unfinished so you can sand and stain it at the job site," Korczak says. "If you're building a new store you can finish it on site, and it's no inconvenience if the store hasn't opened. But you can also have the option of pre-finished woods, which will go in quicker with less mess. That's very useful in remodeling and renovations."

In terms of costs, wood is one of the least expensive raw materials, although installation costs can be fairly high. "But you're looking at a cost-value relationship," Korczak continues. "Wood will last 40 to 60 years even in a retail environment. And it's renewable. You can sand it down, change the color and all sorts of things to renew and refinish a wood floor. So its cost-value quotient is very positive."

Ecologists like wood because it is a renewable resource and environmentally friendly. Short-term maintenance is easy, and unlike carpet, it doesn't harbor dust and dirt.

The downside is that wood is wood and comes only in nature's own colors. Although wood can be stained blue or green, the choice of colors and patterns is somewhat limited. The new urethane coatings make wood fairly waterproof, but no one would recommend it for moist areas or entryways where rain and snow will be tracked in.

"We don't see a lot of wood being used in the common areas of malls because of the care involved," says Everett Hatcher, executive vice president at Crawford McWilliams Hatcher Architects, a Birmingham, Ala.-based architectural firm. "Some of the products have good maintenance claims, but wood is not really for high-traffic areas."

Carpeting probably has more pros and more cons than any other flooring material. Certainly nothing is as soft, quiet and comfortable underfoot. If a store wants to promote a lush, upscale image, there is bound to be carpeting on the floor.

But maintenance is a problem. Although a lightly soiled carpet is easily maintained with a vacuum cleaner, carpets do spot and stain. Designers stress that nothing is as unappealing as a stained carpet and thus do not recommend them for installation where food is sold or eaten.

Carpet does not fare well with weather problems, and even Kathryn Wise Sellers, public relations director of the Dalton, Ga.-based Carpet and Rug Institute, does not recommend it for entryways. "I don't know of any downside for carpet in retail applications," she says loyally. "But it might be a detriment at entrances. We suggest you have walk-off mats that are easily cleaned and replaced. That way you can remove one for cleaning and replace it with another in an entryway."

Carpet is surprisingly inexpensive to install, although it does have to be replaced more frequently than other floor coverings. But the other side of the coin is that you can easily change the color or pattern - difficult with a more permanent flooring.

Although architects and designers frequently use glass blocks for windows, skylights, partitions and other non-weightbearing decorative features, they generally shy away from using them underfoot due to their tendency to crack under the burden of constant traffic. But Innovative Building Products Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, has come up with a system that, according to IBP National Sales Manager Steve Weddle, makes using glass blocks for weight-bearing floors economically competitive with more commonly used materials.

The IBP system utilizes a lightweight aluminum grid framework that can span up to 7'6" without additional reinforcement. Individual glass blocks slip into the 8"x 8" grids, which are lined with neoprene "boots" to allow for flexibility. According to Weddle, where older methods of installation entail mortaring each block by skilled craftspeople, with the IBP system ordinary finishers can set assemble the grid, put it in place and insert the blocks in one-fourth to one-third the time the traditional approach requires.

In addition to being easier to install, Weddle says the IBP system is less prone to breakage because the frame can expand and contract with building movement, relieving the blocks themselves from pressure. In addition, the neoprene boots absorb the shock of constant movement, so the weight of foot traffic does not crack the glass. If by chance a block does break, he adds, a maintenance worker can quickly slip it out and slip a new block in, whereas repairing a mortared block requires specialized labor. A bridge at Oakview Mall in Omaha, Neb. using the IBP system has experienced absolutely no broken pavers in nearly 10 years of use, he reports.

Law/Kingdon Inc. Architects, Wichita, Kan., used the system for a second-level bridge at Spokane Valley Mall in Spokane, Wash. Roger Brown, senior vice president in charge of design, says the design team chose a glass bridge for its strong aesthetic impact and opted to use the IBP system for its convenience and flexibility

"It's very unique looking," he notes. "This in itself is an attraction, but we also wanted to create a span that was open and very fluid and didn't block light to the ground level."

Ordinarily, he says, a glass-block bridge would require much more structure, with large strips of solid mortar between blocks. "This system allows for a really tight grid and a maximum amount of glass. The aluminum strips are maybe a quarter of the width of mortared separators."

Law/Kingdon lit the Spokane bridge from below with blue lights so it has iridescent glow as you walk across it. "It gives the concourse the feeling of being a river but also gives the sense of the structure floating in space," says Brown, who adds public response has been extremely positive. The firm has specified a similar design for Provo Town Centre in Provo, Utah, which is in development.

Weddle says the aluminum grids come in preassembled units up to 10 blocks by 10 blocks (80"x80") in size. They are available in five standard colors - red, black, anodized gold, anodized silver and white - but custom colors can be produced. Colors also can be mixed. The system will accommodate eight-inch thinline glass blocks from Pittsburgh-Corning, Solaris and Weck. IBP is a distributor of Solaris bricks.

Resilent floorings bounce back Sellers declines to talk about carpet prices, although she does say the industry is going to square-foot pricing. "We have talked about price per square yard for years while everyone else quotes by the square foot," she says. "And that's been to our detriment because it's hard to get a realistic comparison when you have to multiply by nine. We have also done some studies to compare the cost of carpeting compared to hard surfaces, and in the long term, carpeting is still a better value."

Carpeting also has the advantage of creating a mood in retail stores. "We have so many new patterns and textures that many stores use carpet to create a positive first impression of their image," she says. "If it's a store selling funky teenage clothes, the carpet can be bright and bold. If it's a corporate men's store, the carpet will have that image. And of course you'll see softer colors in women's lingerie than in men's wear."

Designers and architects do not hesitate to specify carpeting for shops and boutiques, but they are usually leery about putting it in large, public, high-traffic areas because of the maintenance problems. But never say never. Carpet technology has created some very durable products including spike-proof locker room carpeting that can withstand golf spikes.

"Even in malls, a lot of people are using carpet in selected areas," says Everett Hatcher, executive vice president at Crawford McWilliams Hatcher Architects, a Birmingham, Ala.-based firm that specializes in mall design. "And some are even using it in larger areas because the shopper seems to like it. It's a very soft, comfortable material. When a woman wheels a baby in a stroller, it doesn't clatter around like it does on tile."

For Donna Childs, senior associate at the Atlanta-based architectural firm of Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, carpet is a good accent to other common-area floorings. "We're using more of it in malls because it's quiet and lessens fatigue. We tend to use it in accent areas where we're trying to create an environment to entice the shopper to linger. We invite them to come sit on upholstered furniture, relax and read a magazine. Carpet fits right into that."

Childs may be particularly bullish on carpet because she also does a lot of design work on convention centers, which always use carpet. "And goodness knows, conference centers get a lot of traffic, too," she says. She typically uses an Axminster carpet in wool or wool blends. But she uses nylon as well.

Sellers points out that 67 percent of the industry is now in nylon. Olefin (polypropylene) also is often specified for retail installations.

Needless to say, it takes the sturdiest possible carpet to stand up to a retail environment, and technology has been helping. Carpets are available with a 5,000 density (i.e., closeness of the stitches). There is also a trend to texture using a combination of high and low loops that produces an elegant damask-like design in a solid color.

Another trend is toward printed carpet. Patterns hide soil and stains better than their solid counterparts. "Printing technology has improved tremendously," Sellers says. "The new ink-jet mechanisms actually spray the dye with such force that it's impregnated right into the fiber and the carpet looks woven."

But the most exciting development in this type of flooring is the new womb-to-tomb style of operation. Manufacturers have learned that just selling a roll of carpeting and walking away is not the best alternative.

In the Woods "Even the best quality carpeting will have problems if it's badly installed or maintained," says Sellers. "So manufacturers have begun to do the installation themselves, or at least are overseeing it. Some are actually providing the maintenance, or at least recommending a maintenance plan.

"Manufacturers are now asking that installation be done a certain way to uphold the warranty," Sellers continues.

"We don't have maintenance standards yet, but we are trying to provide guidelines. And we're trying to set up a 'Seal of Approval' like Good Housekeeping so that developers can find installers and contractors committed to the standards of this program."