Space: the final frontier. We've all heard those words, and we know what they mean with regard to William Shatner and company. But space and the final frontier have meaning right here at home, too.

I'm talking about the space underneath our feet — floor space. It is perhaps the final frontier for retail and certainly the largest area of uncharted territory for store planners, the construction department and visual merchandisers.

Let's be honest, you won't hurt my feelings. How often is the floor the last design element to be chosen, and the first to be reconsidered when construction costs go over budget? It doesn't take the captain of the Enterprise to realize that significant dollars can be saved by swapping $12-per-sq-ft. wood for carpet or VCT. After 15 years in this industry and after working with more than 35,000 stores personally, I can count on one hand the number of times the floor has been chosen before the laminate for the cash wrap. But when all is said and done, which element is more likely to have an impact on your customer? And which represents the better opportunity? Let me help you decide.

First, let's look at enhancing store image. No matter how you look at it, a 1,000-sq.-ft. sales area has 1,000 sq. ft. of floor space to cover. That floor can enhance and build store image, or it can just be a floor. And with today's flooring possibilities, there are unlimited options to enhance the merchandise for sale with a floor that helps to create the environment for the merchandise. Here are a few examples.

When most of us think of high tech, the first finish that comes to mind is chrome or stainless steel. Guess what? You can get stainless steel flooring and, if the budget doesn't permit it, you can get that same look from one of the faux products now available. How different would the store feel with that under your feet?

In the white goods arena, areas of carpet integrated with wood are now all the rage. Not just because it creates a nice visual, and not just because the use of carpet helps reduce the overall flooring costs, but because it best represents what most of us have in our homes. It has long been known the best way to show products is to put them in an environment where you would expect to use or see them.

For high-end retail, darkly stained mahogany, exotic woods, beige marbles and granites are en vogue. The reason — consumers expect the merchandise to be upscale when the environment that surrounds it feels upscale. And what better way to convey that than to suggest the look of luxury homes and clubs?

In addition to enhancing image, the floor also has the ability to keep customers in the store longer, or to move them where you want them to go faster. How? Well, the simple answer is to ensure the floor reflects the customer and his needs. Hard, polished surfaces are usually not the ideal products for, let's say, a maternity shop. Soft, plush carpet is rarely appropriate for a convenience store. However, look at the number of shopping centers that are now carpeted. That's not a cost-saving move, that's a customer-saving move. The feet and back don't hurt as much as shoppers trudge the miles of floor space, so they keep on shopping.

How can the floor help to move people where you want them to go? Think of it as a highway through the store, and follow simple planning rules: Keep the road clear, well-maintained, and have it lead shoppers to the off-ramps you want them to take. The truth is, just as a driver keeps his eye on the road when sitting behind the wheel, the customer keeps his eye on the floor when shopping. Signage above is great, but the reality is that most of us shop while looking forward and downward, not upward to read the signs.

Surface aside, the flooring installation can often help to invite customers into your store, or it can keep them out. Wood should be run lengthwise from the store entrance, not parallel to it, so that you don't create false psychological barriers to entry ("I dare you to step over that line").

Directional patterns need to point into the store, not toward the entrance, so that the customer feels invited in rather than directed out. Never underestimate the power of the surface beneath your customer's feet.

"How can the floor help to move people where you want them to go? Think of it as a highway through the store, and follow simple planning rules: Keep the road clear, well-maintained, and have it lead shoppers to the off-ramps you want them to take."

Finally, let's talk vignettes. Lighting, fixturing, and merchandising are always considered. Flooring? Always last on the list. But what is the first experience your customers are likely to have in that "store within a store"? The answer is the experience that takes place when their feet enter the area. Change the floor when you change the vignette. Let it enhance the feeling you want your customers to have when they are in the area.

The transitions from surface to surface are so easy to manage these days. The effect of going from surface to surface, however, would make it worth doing even if the transitions were not easy to manage.

Flooring can help to enhance the space, build the store image, create an environment where the customer feels comfortable, and keep the customer in the store longer. The options available in flooring have never been greater, and the number of new options is growing exponentially, with never-before-seen surfaces and never-before-experienced possibilities.

Always remember the floor. And dare to go where nobody has gone before.

Richard Goodman is president and chief operating officer of Associated/ACC International Ltd., the largest independent national resource for contract flooring in North America. He has held this position since 1997.