Solar, anew line of American-made pliers from Channellock, includes these new diagonal cutting pliers made of high-carbon, drop- forged steel.

CHICAGO - So what's new in composting? Chances are, you'd know if you visited the National Hardware Show held here in the Windy City in mid-August, or about any of the other thousands of products and categories, more than you can shake your snips at.

Speaking of snips, there were many on hand: from Midwest Snips/First Choice, Malco, etc. And screwdrivers, saw blades, hammers, etc. All the big hardware retailers were there, along with manufacturers big and small. Products and services were broken down into the following areas: hardware & allied lines; plumbing, electrical & hvac; lawn & garden; paint & home decorating; housewares; international; and National Building Products. Snips roved the aisles of the hardware and hvac areas, hoping to find items of interest to sheet metal and hvac contractors.

The show is sponsored by the American Hardware Manufacturers Association (AHMA), formed 99 years ago "¿ to further the interests of the manufacturer and promote cordial relations with distributors."

That still holds true, although this is a consumer show more than it is a trade show. Still, contractors are also consumers and many purchase normal everyday items at retail centers, be it their local Mom and Pop hardware store or the national discount chain.

Separately from the main show, there was a new product expo whose printed directory ran 130 pages. Items from this expo are available to be viewed on line until April at

One of the products shown was the 3M "Filtrete" Ultra Allergen air cleaning filter. These are said to be an easy sell to those who suffer from allergies; they capture mold spores, pet dander, and other particles with low pressure drop.

It was hard to gauge the public's overall interest in indoor air quality as a product category, as it did not have its own dedicated area in the convention hall. Some air purification products from Allergy Free, American Air Filter, Precisionaire and Purolator were grouped in the "hvac" section, while others such as exhaust ventilation fans were grouped in the "electrical" products section of the show's product guide. Some were listed under both headings.

It was difficult in the same vein to shop for one category item such as carbon monoxide detectors, which are growing in popularity and are important to the hvac trade. Some were listed under the heading of "safety products" while others found their way into other categories. One exhibitor said that wasn't all bad, though: On the show floor, she said, "At least we're not surrounded by our competitors."

With such a broad range of products and categories, some confusion was inevitable. But such a show is ideal for casual browsing. Something new: There were an even dozen Internet services listed in the program guide, with a separate seminar on selling tools and related products to consumers over the Internet.

Senco Sensors showed several of its carbon monoxide alarms. The model 2001 has a digital readout so you know the exact level of CO present, from 30 to 999 ppm. All feature a patented electrochemical sensor requiring no replacement. Senco is located in Vancouver, Canada.

Hobart Welders showed equipment and had on hand its 2000 catalog packed with information on matching the welding process to type of metal, as well as a primer on understanding process advantages and selecting a power source. Phone 877-Hobart1.

Zircon showed several products for measuring and projecting straight lines, such as for lining up ductwork. The LaserVision LL and LaserVision Plus "project easily visible laser lines onto any surface."

Knock, knock - er, click, click... your e-tailer is calling with tools to sell

Everyone's playing "Who wants to be a millionaire?"

That's how someone described the Internet's headlong rush to replace (or supplement, depending on who you talk to) your corner hardware store, retail outlet or hvac wholesaler-distributor.

So far, it just isn't happening. At a special seminar on "E-commerce Solutions - Make Your Customer's Shopping Experience Truly Satisfying" at this year's National Hardware Show, someone likened it more to the television show "Survivor." Indeed, one Internet panel participant had to cancel out at the last minute - his cyberspace company is now defunct.

Still, there was no problem getting a last-minute fill-in, with new entrants cropping up every day. And that's pretty much where this fledgling industry stands today. Several officials with Internet start-up companies (dot-coms, as they are known) told show attendees about the joys of buying tools and other hardware-type products over the Internet.

Most of these haven't been around very long, and don't have much in the way of track records to judge them on. One participant was with an "old, established" Internet company that dates back to 1995. Another said his company was founded "the day before last Thanksgiving." These are new companies, and this is a new way of doing business. There are some success stories, and some - well, not so successful stories.

Some of the best Internet sellers are rated highly by their customers because of the old-fashioned things they do, and most center around that oldest of fashions, plain old customer service. Customers get annoyed, one cyber surfer pointed out, when they have to keep feeding in endless lines of information in order to make a simple purchase: the best Internet e-tailers ask you to do this only once, then "remember it" when you return, even recognizing you and addressing you by name¿ just like Bob at the corner hardware store or wholesaler always does.

Even better, some e-tailers will immediately begin building a customer profile around you, so that when you make a request it can supply additional advice and/or suggestions. Buying a length of flex duct, for example, might prompt them to ask if you also need a register, grille, or clamps. They might send you notices when a new product in that category comes out, or if there is a price break on such a product. Of course, some of this is designed to be helpful, while some of it can be regarded as useless sales "spam" merely cluttering up your computer.

Other e-tailers are teaming up with large national retailers such as Ace Hardware and filling their websites with expert articles aimed at helping you with installation or troubleshooting tips and other handy information. Some can give you access to an expert when you have a troublesome question related to the product you want to buy. DIY'ers in particular love this added benefit of shopping on the Net.

There are also drawbacks to buying on the web. While Internet advocates always talk of immediacy, about how easy it is getting to order a product without leaving your computer, there is always the inevitable shipping delay - and cost. You might have to wait five business days in order to receive your purchase by regular ground mail. Or you can pay top dollar and have it delivered overnight. One company noted an example, a $200 shop vac available on its website. Normal shipping cost is $5. Overnight shipping, however, is a hefty $75 additional.

There are other factors to consider. For now, you can probably get away without paying sales tax. Or maybe not, depending on who you talk to or how the laws change in the near future.

As always, the answers aren't crystal clear yet on e-tailing, but this session proved insightful. Stay tuned.