Consider this advice from these retailers who have mastered special orders.
Have someone take charge
“Any employee can place an order on the special order list, but we have one person to do all the ordering and another to do all the follow-up,” says Jan Hurlbert of Hurlbert PRO Hardware in Greenville, Pa. “That’s made us more efficient and ensures we don’t forget to call someone that their order’s ready. We have a designated area of the store where we put all the special orders when they arrive.”
Keep pricing fair
“I don’t charge extra for shipping and give the customer a fair price on the item,” Hurlbert says, “so special orders may not be a big moneymaker for me, but now I’ve had a customer that’s been in my store twice, which means they might buy something else.”
Invest in technology
“We have all of our vendors set up in our POS system, which has streamlined the special order process and made it painless and seamless for us,” says Christine Szafraniec of Cragin Industrial Supply in Chicago. “We print a report every day that shows the status of our special orders.”
Support your online catalogs
Tom Noble is a bit different from the traditional retailer. His business, Noble Sales, based in Rockland, Mass., doesn’t have a retail space, but rather a sales staff and an online catalog of more than 1 million SKUs geared toward commercial and industrial customers worldwide. He drives customers to his websites, where he makes ordering product fast and easy. Still, even with all the convenience of a sophisticated website, he knows he still needs to provide customers personal service.
“A lot of people will go to the website for information, but they still make phone calls to get more information,” he says. “Interface with customers is still the way to build relationships, and business, even if it’s online, is still about relationships.” He uses an online chat tool, email and a customer service line and says it’s critical that customers don’t have to wait long to get answers to their questions.
Know when to ask for payment
“We don’t ask for a deposit on a special order,” Noble says. “We normally secure it with a credit card but don’t charge it. People don’t like paying for stuff they don’t have yet.”
Make it fast
“A week is about the longest time our customers will wait for a product,” says Shelly Vander Hayden, manager at Koch’s Hardware Hank in Milaca, Minn. While you may be at the mercy of your vendors as to how long it takes to get a product, make sure you’re not delaying the process. Place the order quickly.
Train your staff to suggest special orders
Remind staff that helping a customer with a special order is not a hassle; it’s business as usual. “Our best advertising for special orders is through our employees,” Vander Hayden says. “Every employee knows to ask customers, if it’s something we don’t have, how can we help you get it?”
Communicate with the customer
“If there are delays in the order, call the customer and be upfront about it,” Vander Hayden says. “Communication is key with the customer and with the staff, too, so that they know what’s going on with a special order.”
Bring it into inventory
“We get a lot of customers who saw something in a magazine or on Pinterest and ask us if we can get it for them,” Vander Hayden says. “Consumers are well-informed. Listen to what they want. It may turn into something you want to stock. For example, we had a number of people request specialty plants from us, and it’s ended up creating a niche in our garden center.”