I agree with others, I doubt a hobby shop in the past would spend time finding something like this, and these days, even more so. Just my experience/opinion, but I doubt a LHS unless they are really a unicorn would spend much time searching for an item like that, unless as someone else said you would be willing to pay them for their time. Not to mention that likely they don't have mystical sources they call, they probably use the internet the way most of us do. Searches like you are talking about usually happen in the art or other high end collectibles markets and dealers who do that generally get paid for doing it, quite a bit.
Clarification... Is your question implying that you might do a search in order to make a sale to this customer on behalf of your store? Or, would this be solely for finding a source through which your customer could make their own arrangements for purchase?
If the product is unavailable to you for ordering through the manufacturer direct or a distributor, I should think your store would be assuming some risky liabilities in trying to profit from being an intermediary in this situation. If the product received has damage, is inoperative, is otherwise unacceptable, what recourse (including shipping costs) would the store have? Unless your customer has agreed to a premium price, I would imagine the store's profit would be squeeky-marginal, at best. Also, if the customer reneges on the sale for any reason, would this be an item that the store could easily find an alternate buyer at a profitable price?
If your customer is not search-saavy, and the buyer's loyalty is to be strengthened and rewarded, perhaps using 'idle time' to do some searching on their behalf might be prudent. After all, I would think that a retailer would be focused on customers' needs 100% of the time on the job...which, of course, comes in many, many forms...from cleaning a public restroom to closing a BIG sale with a smiling buyer .
Then, if your customer has agreed this help would be acceptable, provide them with the information which would allow them to contact the seller you've identified, and let the customer negotiate price, shipping, ask questions re condition, warranties, return policy, etc., etc.. That would seem to me to be the preferred choice on behalf of the store in this instance.
The search assistance, only, is akin to another thread within this past couple weeks. Steve Muffin started a thread drawing attention to a special order run of MTH NKP F-3's only available through Stockyard Express. Steve, of course, has his own list of special runs. How cool is that!! Just like the Macy's/Gimbel's give-and-take at Christmas in Miracle on 34th Street.
On several occasions, I was looking for a Lionel item and my local train store (Grzyboski’s) did not have it, however, Joe offered to check with Lionel to see it they still had any in stock. If they did, he’s get me what I was looking for. That is about the extent I would expect a local shop to go.
Expectation vs. practice would seem to be two different things. Granted I don't have a local hobby shop around me these days per se, but my experiences when living in NE Ohio about 20 years ago, where I was young guy first building my collection and often on the hunt for specific cars or items. I'm not sure if MTH had the dealer locator yet at that time, and internet searching was iffy at best to my recollection. The world has obviously changed alot, and the information is at our fingertips. The internet isn't the be all end all in finding what you are looking for though. Perhaps the model train community was tighter knit then or shop owners were more comfortable recommending their buddies shops. I don't know. I didn't have "expectations", but often just said what I was looking for and would occasionally follow up with any recommendations on who to check with. Some of my experiences:
* Walking into Dale Shafner's shop in Canton and asking about a relatively recent (at the time) MTH release which he didn't have, and him without prompting telling me to go Glen's Train shop in Akron. Glen's had it and I discovered another great train shop.
* I also recall being in Smithville Model Trains, and Lucky taking a call from another shop and doing a deal with that shop to get that shops customer the item they were looking for. Same thing with Trains N-Things in North Canton. I remember them making a couple calls on my behalf to try and find a car I was looking for. They couldn't locate one but received a piece of advice which they shared, and ended up leading me to Jim's in Homer City PA where I did find what I was looking for.
* More recently, a couple months ago a friend was telling me about his hunt for an item sold out with the manufacturer and he couldn't find a dealer who had it. He called a well known shop, who he's built a relationship with and they told him they didn't have it, and it would be fairly hard to find. My buddy continued to look, but out of the blue that same shop called him and said they located one and what it would cost. He had no expectation, but was of course thrilled to get the item and accepting of the light scolding to pre-order next time.
In all those cases there was some level of relationship with the hobby shop, by customer and/or fellow shop owners. I think that makes a difference. If I were just some dude who walked in for the first time, I doubt any of those scenarios happen, but because they knew me and I spent time and money in their shops, they were willing to offer assistance and while I had no expectations, those experiences left an impression on me.
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