CHICAGO - They call the National Hardware Show the "World's Fair of Home Improvement."

CHICAGO - They call it "The World's Fair of Home Improvement." Compared to some fairs, The National Hardware Show leaps a much higher bar.

It's the Guggenheim of Home Improvement; what McCormick Place was built for. More than 3,000 exhibitors were showing 10,000 products. And once we saw them, we realized we needed about one-third of them, as soon as possible.

Home improvement is a $300 billion retail market, and the industry grew 6% last year. Homeowners' thirst for tools and other useful stuff has not been slaked, and suppliers all over the world are battling for their share.

You could get everything you need in this one place. Categories of products included hardware; paint and home decorating; lawn, garden, outdoor living; plumbing, electrical, hvac, housewares and building products.

This is a trade show, of course, held for buyers, not consumers. Retail execs, store managers, and merchandise managers are exhibitors' targets. All understood that the successful booth should show buyers exactly how great the products would look on their shelves. Packaging and presentation appeal to a strong impulse to purchase, a major factor in hardware buys, according to experts.

The result is that the show looks like an enormous retail store. "Honey, why don't you go look at the grills while I pick out door handles for the closets? Don't buy anything unless we talk about it."

No actual buying was allowed on the floor, at least not the retail kind. You couldn't even walk around with individual items. This rule was meant to stop those who would help themselves to a cordless drill while booth personnel were occupied.

The broadcast TV networks did segments for their morning shows, and cable TV channel HGTV proved it is growing in size and influence with its coverage. Local TV and radio stations attended, and hundreds of print journalists, both consumer and trade, looked for copy.

DIY, not trade

Almost all of these exhibitors have trade divisions to address the pro-residential, commercial and industrial markets. They are happy to take your card and will get back to you with full information on their commercial-quality product lines and buying plans. Some even had the trade guy around if you wanted to talk on the floor.

Still, most booths were primarily home-oriented. If you were looking for counter items to sell to tradesman, there wasn't a lot here to get excited about. The usual suppliers will be able to continue fill your needs without you missing something revolutionary. We did not see the ultimate pair of snips at the hardware show. We did see a very long level called "The Big Johnson."

On these pages, we decided to go with the flow and present what we found new, fun and interesting, even if some items will not increase the profitability of your sheet metal operation by a single 0.01%. We did not deviate from one strongly held principle: The item must be useful. Or at least somewhat useful.

We were especially attracted to individual innovators, people who actually translated an idea for something better into a marketable product. At this stage, one major sale puts their products into the home improvement mainstream. If the sale never comes, they've got another idea.

To enjoy the show fully, whether you attended or not, you must peruse the www.nationalhardwareshow.com Web site. There you may browse through all the product categories that strike your interest, and zero in on the suppliers that fit your particular needs. Since most of us are not trying to fill the aisles at The Home Depot, we can ignore the thousands of products that hold no appeal and concentrate on those that look too good to pass up.

All contact information for manufacturers is listed at the end of this artcile.

Targeting tailgaters

Grill's on the left, cooler's on the right. Unless you're standing on the other side. Nothing fancy there. But check out the quality mobile scissor-lift base. That's what makes this unit work. Dan Brennan and friends were tailgating at an Indy Colts game five years ago when it struck them. Some things, like meats and foods, should be served hot, while others, your beverages and beers for instance, must remain much cooler. The rest is Grill-N-Chill history. The unit hitches to a vehicle and even has its own taillights. With a rig like this, we would search the parking lot for Ohio State fans to humiliate with our superior cooking and chilling capabilities.

Yuppy, yes, but fun

It's hard to know what to think about the Thermos Grill2Go Fire & Ice. Professional tailgaters might sneer, but this special-edition Grill2Go looks like a snazzy little rolling fun center that will only cost about $300 retail. A pedal lifts the grill up from the 10-gallon cooler, providing 310 sq. in. of Teflon cooking surface (two-thirds grate, one-third flat griddle). A one-pound LP tank should last two-plus hours on high. The whole unit can all be pulled on convenient back wheels. Cool or geeky? You decide.

Gloves help grip

Gloves. IronClad Performance Wear recommends two new models that incorporate the gReptile griping material strategically located throughout the glove, and with an adhesive-backed strip to apply to the tool handle for "up to 300% more gripping strength." The GripTec Striker has two fingers and a thumb exposed for maximum utility of the fingertips. The GripTech Advantage is the full-finger design for dry, wet, or oily conditions.

You have but two hands

Mr.7-Hands. Multiple screwdriver heads and a flashlight. Everything works. You get the light right in the spot you need it. It's "perfect for home and office," in case anyone had questions about industrial usage. But if the thing were there when you needed it, it would be just the thing. From Adroit Precision Tools.

Functional? Safe? Yes.

Nothing is harder to accept than a dysfunctional tape measure. "It brings inaccuracy and inconvenience." You must have: "The most USEFUL tape measure ever made."

Snips presents this press release in a somewhat readable size as a service to readers and the manufacturer, European Hi Tech, Inc., Harbor City, Calif.

It's your standard-length 7.5-meter metric ruler, of course, yet it has advantages you've never dreamed of. They're fairly obvious, once you sort it all out.

But you don't buy the FUNCTIONAL Tape Measure (??) for its gadgets. Pulling this bad boy out of your pocket at the next jobsite or barbeque is the thrill you're looking for. And why not? You've earned it. The admiration of your relatives and peers is thanks enough.

Sharp tools satisfy inner needs

SOG is one of the premier knife manufacturers among those that exhibit at the hardware show. If you like knives, you can never have enough. For example, bet you're not carrying your cash in a money clip that includes a 2.7-in. swing-out blade. You'll have some proud explaining to do at your next airport visit when this charmer drops into the little basket. But when you're just relaxing at home or work, twirling the X2-42 Recondo on your knee is the better choice. Named after the Vietnam-era MACV Recondo School for Special Forces, the X-42 "features wicked grid lines which focus power on the edge and top of the intensely sharp blade. This is one serious fixed blade." That's good enough for us.

Need more info? Call, visit or write

Adroit Precision Tools, US Office, 120 Cambridge St., Burlington, Mass. 01803; 781-272-4229; www.tridirectmarketing.com

Advanced Machine Technology, 2445 Directors Row Suite B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46241; 317-248-0066

Arbortech Industries Ltd., 67 Westchester Rd., Malaga, WA 6090, Australia; +61-8-9249 1944; www.arbortech.com.au