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Why Special Orders Are Not So Special After All


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In today’s tough market, micro independents are doing whatever we can to bring dollars in and keep customers happy. That might mean bringing in products we don’t like selling, or it might mean making some door-to-door deliveries. In my case, it means doing more special orders. 

I despise special orders. My wife thinks it’s because I’m a control freak, but I prefer to say I want to ensure my customer has a pleasant experience in my store. If I’m special ordering a product that I don’t normally carry, it means I probably don’t know everything about the product, and I don’t know if the product is normally in stock at the distributor. I know all about the products I carry and receive every week. I also know if the product shows up every week or if delivery is, at times, sporadic. 

Special orders can be easy money. You don’t have to stock products and market them; you just call your distributor to have it added on to your order, and when it comes in, you stick it in a corner and call your customer.

A few years ago, I stopped carrying a brand of cat food. It’s a good food, but I didn’t have confidence in where it was made, and I couldn’t get answers to some of my questions about sourcing and ingredients. I pulled it and brought in a line I have more confidence in and also met my guidelines for transparency. Most of the customers had absolutely no issues changing to the new brand. I offered discounts and free cans to get people to switch. 

However, one customer said her cats weren’t doing as well on the new food as they did on the old one. We talked awhile, and I offered her a different line of cat food that was a little more expensive. I discounted it for her to make it the same price as what she’d been buying. However, after trying it, she said her cats did not like it. She really wanted to go back to the line I discontinued. I told her I’d be happy to bring it in, and I, again, made her aware of my reasons for not stocking it. I told her when I would need her order by to get it the same week, and because I had dealt with that line before, I knew it was typically in stock at the distributors. I’ve been special ordering for her for a couple of years now with no problems. It’s a win-win for both of us. 

I’ve also had a few special orders because of my conversations with my clients and because I spend time perusing the catalogs of my distributors. A customer who has a couple of horses was in recently, picking up her pet’s food. I also have a couple of horses, so we always spend a few minutes talking. She mentioned she was struggling with flies. She had tried everything the farm store had to offer, and it wasn’t working. She asked me for some suggestions, and I remembered there was a fly spray offered through one of my distributors in its agricultural line. I made a quick phone call to the distributor to confirm pricing and availability and relayed that information to my customer. When it came in on the truck a week later, I gave her a call, and she rushed over to get it. She loves it because it’s really working for her fly problem.

You’re probably asking yourself right now why I despise special orders because it seems like they work out well if you do your homework. Let me tell you another story. A good client comes in for a nail trim and asks if he can leave his dog so he can run over to the hardware store across the street. As we are a grooming operation as well, that’s not a big deal because we have kennels available.

When he came back, I asked if he had found what he was looking for. He said he had not. He was looking for a specific type of landscape edging and had been to several stores but had not found what he wanted. 

Once again, the light bulb goes off in my brain. I remember one of my distributors has a lawn and garden division, and I had seen some edging. I tell my customer I might have access to something, and I quickly jump on my distributor’s website and locate the edging. I look it up on the manufacturer’s website and show it to my customer. It happens to be exactly what he is looking for, and thanks to the distributor’s online ordering system, I can see my pricing and availability. I figure out my customer’s price and order it for him. He picks it up the next week, and it seems like it’s another “easy money” special order. 

A few days later, I see that customer pulling into the parking lot, and I immediately think, “Oh no, he doesn’t like his lawn edging and he’s going to return it, and since I don’t deal with this product I don’t know if the manufacturer is willing to take it back. This is going to cost me.” He comes in and, much to my surprise, he loves the product and needs more of it. I say “no problem” and tell him I’ll have it next week. I added it to my distributor order and delivery day rolls around—no edging. I call the distributor and am told they should be getting it in next week. No problem; my customer should be OK with that. The next week rolls around—again, no edging. This time I make a slightly more panicked phone call to the distributor and am told the product is on backorder. A few more phone calls later, I find out they won’t have it for several months. I did not want to tell my customer the product I recommended, and he then installed, is something I could no longer get quickly. If I do that, he is likely to want to return what he purchased from me and will be angry at all the wasted time. Instead, I found the product online and purchased it at full retail and then sold it to him. 

Did I mention I despise special orders? 


B.C. Henschen, a certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer, is a partner in Platinum paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf. 

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