When it comes to helping customers track down special orders, Tony Popowitz, an inside salesman for Pennsylvania-based West Elizabeth Lumber, says his philosophy is “Never say no.” His skills were tested a few years back when he got a call only days before Christmas from a designer requesting 1,000 board-feet of ebony, which the customer needed to be surfaced and shipped overnight to Los Angeles International Airport. The customer chose West Elizabeth Lumber, recalls Popowitz, because he knew it specializes in hardwoods. Calling upon several sources, Popowitz assembled the order; the bill, including freight, came to $28,000. He learned later that this customer needed the rush order to customize the interior of a Lear jet that a Saudi prince had purchased as a present for a relative.

Popowitz makes filling this order sound a lot simpler than it probably was. But dealers who walk on the wild side of special ordering say they are always weighing the risks against the rewards. “We get occasional requests for stuff like marble from Italy,” says John Rightenberg, sales manager for Michigan-based Theut Products, which specializes in brick, stone, and concrete, and also sells landscaping products and fireplaces. “That's a one-shot deal that, if you make a mistake, you can't get rid of.” Several dealers say they'll send customers elsewhere when requested products fall outside of their own knowledge and expertise. But those parameters seem to keep expanding. Along this vein, Edward Hines Lumber, based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., has considered adding decorative columns to its special order menu to meet growing local demand, says general manager John Drake. Century Everglades Lumber's Everglades Design Center in Miami recently helped a designer find “His” and “Hers” glass sinks, each priced $1,900, for the Atlanta home of singer Kenny Rogers. “Special order has evolved into a different animal, and it's not just about the stuff you don't carry,” says Mike Nodarse, Everglades' manager. Special order isn't simply a matter of ordering and purchasing products; it's about the customer service that the product search entails.

In some cases, demand for some items becomes strong enough for dealers to stock them permanently. Truitt & White, based in Berkeley, Calif., began carrying Velux roof windows after special orders for them increased to three or four per day, says vice president of sales and marketing Mark Pearsall. But dealers will go only so far in this direction when inventory control is their objective and space is their limitation. “Instead of expanding the monster, we've decided to have more little monsters,” says Nodarse of Century Everglades Lumber, which in January opened a second, 9,000-square-foot showroom in Boca Raton, Fla.