The molding category isn't what it used to be, say dealers and distributors. Even before the housing recession, pro dealers had been scaling back their in-stock assortments to their best-selling molding profiles and relying more on distributors. Dealers have also been shifting to less expensive moldings made from lower-priced materials.

More Is More: Lynn (Mass.) Lumber's 1,800-square-foot molding showroom features 140-plus profiles. Lynn's co-owner, Richard Kessell (pictured) says that discerning homeowners searching for elaborate molding still seek out speciality stores like his. Photo: Jonathan Kannair The biggest trend in molding is "people aren't buying enough," jokes Al Delbridge, president of EastCoast Moulding of North Wilkesboro, N.C., which ships to dealers in 11 states from distribution centers in Texas, the Carolinas, and Tennessee.

In reality, builders still play up the amount of molding in their homes as a selling feature. But in tougher times builders are also economizing. So dealers have been switching to primed finger-jointed pine molding, a lot of it coming from South America. Delbridge and other sources say advances in priming technology have improved the evenness and thickness of the coatings on these products. "The cost savings come from their mass production and in their installation," says Jim Becker, president of American Wood Moulding of Hanover, Md., with four DCs.

Moldings from medium-density fiberboard and polyvinyl chloride are gaining ground for the same reasons. It is significantly less expensive to create MDF profiles relative to similar clear wood items, particularly the wider profiles made in longer production batches. The number of PVC profiles has been expanding, and the material is well suited for "custom bending" to create curved eaves, pediments, and other exterior applications.

Stocking for the Rare Order. But in a category with literally thousands of profiles, how much molding does a dealer need to display? Becker, whose company recently redirected its focus to warehouse homes centers, says big boxes serve more customer bases and stock a broader molding array. For some pro dealers, though, less is enough.

"We're constantly re-evaluating SKUs," says Matt Masse, operations and purchasing director for Hammond Lumber of Belgrade, Maine. "You're going to have a customer come in and say 'what do you mean you don't have 5-inch clamshell casings?' And you do have to guard against a 20-year event like that. But it only takes about 20 SKUs to do a heck of a job with molding."

Delbridge says his dealer-customers need to stock only 50 to 60 profiles because they're drawing on EastCoast's 600-plus assortment. Joe Palencer, president of Wholesale Millwork in Seaford, Del., adds that hardly any of his dealers order whole containers from manufacturers through his company anymore. "They are relying on two-step distribution to control their inventories," he says.

Inventory control, though, is relative when dealers won't let go of slow-moving profiles in stock. "I can't remember any profile we've dropped," says Mike Thomas, a buyer with Shone Lumber in Stanton, Del., which stocks 150 SKUs. "Even the few dogs we have we keep 500, 600 feet in stock because the minute you discontinue a line someone is going to order it."

Lynn Lumber, a dealer/distributor based in Massachusetts, prefers to retain its profiles, too. "Customers come back looking to match what they bought three years ago," says Richard Kessel, Lynn's co-owner and director of marketing. "You can't sell from an empty shelf."

Regional Preferences. Kessel boasts that Lynn Lumber "has the largest selection of molding in the free world"–and the Better Business Bureau approved its claim. Its molding display area is 1,800 square feet, or about one-third of Lynn's total inside selling space. On one wall alone, more than 140 samples of casings, crowns, and chair-rail are displayed. It also makes 40% of what it sells.

The company introduced polyurethane architectural profiles to the New England market in the 1980s and continues to offer its full molding and column selection for shipment to customers across the country. But the advent of Internet marketing has changed the game on the consumer side. "People are selling molding out of their kitchens and drop-shipping all day," says Kessel. He notes that lightweight polyurethane is still "UPS-able" without incurring high freight charges.

When selling to builders and remodelers, though, pro dealers know that the price and quality of moldings ordered depend on what millwork package is bought and the scale of the house. "If a door is prehung, it will either come with a 'canned' casing or no casing at all," says Masse. "That gives us the opportunity to trade up the customer."

Palencer says that homes in the Southeast are influenced by Georgian and Charleston architecture that calls for wider profiles as accents to higher ceilings and taller doors. Kessel adds that urban customers often request more ornate "detail" in the moldings they choose.

National distributors, such as Huttig or BlueLinx, generally stick to the "meat and potatoes" of molding, says Kessel. Orders for more ornate or elaborate designs often end up being placed with that rarefied breed of specialty dealers, such as Lynn. Kessel says these dealers can still be found in most metro markets, selling a wide range of moldings, a portion of which they produce themselves. As examples, Kessel points to Sheridan Lumber in Miami, Dykes Lumber in New York, and TW Perry in Maryland, which a few years ago purchased Classic Moulding & Door.

TW Perry dedicates half of Classic's football field-sized facility in Savage, Md., to high-end custom molding that's produced by workers who are the spiritual descendents of fine cabinet makers, says Chris Gray, Classic's former owner and TW Perry's director of architectural sales. The other half of this facility is for production-grade moldings, which Perry sells exclusively in its stores and hopes to brand eventually.

Gray says that by establishing its in-house production capabilities, Perry "has a competitive edge with customers who have particular needs." This facility generates about $5 million in business annually, and the company is already talking about expanding its output to $10 million, says Gray.

Any dealer thinking about growing its molding business, though, will have to wait for the economy to turn around. "I am so ready for 2010," Kessel says.

–John Caulfield is a contributing editor of ProSales.