Decades ago, soon after starting work at my local hardware store, the manager tipped me off to a vital skill: Learning to speed-read a label faster than the customer so you can sound like an expert on that product. Over time, I found such play-acting could get me through most encounters with the typical retail customer, but if I wanted to sell to pros, I had better learn more about the product I was selling than what was stamped on its side.

For the most part, you've done that homework. This is particularly true with wood; everywhere I go, I'm impressed by the detailed knowledge you reveal regarding lumber species, grades, and what to look for in a pallet of studs. That's why I'm so surprised at how little dealers know about what goes into plastic and wood-plastic composite (WPC) products. Such ignorance might be understandable if composites and pure plastics were a tiny part of your inventory, but in many cases they provide a significant share of total sales. Despite those big dollars, I've found dealers who cannot describe even the basic differences between brands–differences that could help alert them to whether the product will be a problem-solver or a problem-maker. Too often, I fear, dealers regard composites and plastic products as pretty much identical in composition and manufacture. Lots of dealers also think WPCs are made from recycled milk jugs and sawdust, and they believe the cap coating on deckboards is some kind of PVC. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Across the country, you'll find dealers making decisions on which composite and PVC to stock without having a real understanding of what's in this stuff. Instead, they base their decision on other factors: Price, color, or the sales rep's ability to play the confidence game. Or they bail out of making a judgment by picking a vendor simply because it's big, sort of like when corporate procurement specialists would say, "You won't get fired for buying IBM." (Remember when IBM made personal computers?)

Dealers should become as expert on composites and plastics as they are about wood. Remember Ronald Reagan's advice: Trust, but verify. Our report can help start your education.

I'm writing this while in Madison, Wis., attending an international conference on the next breakthroughs in composites research. This trip comes near the end of a thousand-mile pilgrimage that has taken me to several states, numerous factories, and a number of research centers, all in an attempt to learn what goes into the stuff that brings you hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year.

The truth, I've learned, is far more complicated than I expected–and certainly much more detailed than what can be speed-read off the side of a box.

Craig Webb, editor