Some things are so deeply ingrained in the culture of this industry that refusal to change is a virtual certainty.

Of all the various and sundry proposals floated in this column, this one will probably be dead on arrival. But I’m going to make it anyway, because we need to do something about shingle sample boards.

Not to trivialize my own suggestion, it is just that some things are so deeply ingrained in the culture of this industry that refusal to change is a virtual certainty. Manufacturers acknowledge that shingle sample boards cost the industry millions (some say tens of millions) of dollars every year. They cost tons of non-replaceable fossil fuel to make and ship. Fossil fuel that will never be available again to light a lamp, power a car or heat a home.

Distributors are cursed by roofing contractors because of the frequent lack of availability of the right sample boards. They are “free,” so their availability is naturally guarded by the manufacturer. Distributors in turn hoard as many of them as they can get only to have them become obsolete in the course of a year or two as colors and styles change. They are going to end up in the landfill anyway, but it is a real shame when they are never used for the purpose intended.

Roofing sales and estimating folks must endure the indignity of hauling shingle sample boards around in their cars or trucks. Not the back, but inside, out of the weather. My friend, roofing contractor Tom Scribbins says, “It makes me feel like Willie Lohman (the hapless protagonist in Death of a Salesman) hauling those things around.”

In spite of higher production rates and computerization, the boards are still costly to make and ship. In spite of distribution systems that boast world-class forecasting and 99.6 percent inventory accuracy, distributors still have a hard time coming up with a decent fill rate on sample requests. In spite of some great innovations we’ve seen lately, such as sample boards with beautiful graphics on the back or fold-out graphics on the front, they are still clunky, heavy, and really mess up the back seat of your SUV.

In spite of all the difficulty and expense, we continue to make, deliver and show sample boards because home and building owners demand them.

Or do they?

I do not challenge the fact that clients frequently request that you show them a sample of the actual product. Some roofing contractors I know won’t, but most probably will if they can put their hands on the sample board. Most sample boards and manufacturer literature will tell you not to select from such a small sample, but go look at a completed job to really know what the product will look like. With great Web sites, designer software, and classy print media produced by shingle manufacturers today, isn’t it time for us to pull back from at least one old-fashioned marketing technique? Here’s my suggestion (the one that probably won’t sail): Quit making full-sized sample boards available for “free.”

  • They aren’t “free,” but are inordinately expensive (even compared to a glossy, multi-page brochure or interactive CD).

  • If the manufacturers charged distributors, distributors could track them through their world-class distribution systems and actually be able to deliver a better fill rate.

  • If, in turn, roofing contractors had to pay for them, they would be much less prone to waste them. They may not be recyclable, but they are reusable.

  • If samples cost money, chances are real professionals would be the only ones with fresh, up-to-date samples.

  • I do not suggest that manufacturers or distributors set up samples as a new profit center. They should expect to continue to have them as a cost center, but a cost center more in control. If consumers really demand this type of sample board, it will be worth the expense all the way through the supply chain.

If it is determined that consumers don’t really demand this type of sample board, perhaps the numbers of them that are produced each year will go down to a more realistic and productive level. Manufacturers will reduce their costs, which in a mature, competitive business, nearly always end up to the benefit of the consumer. Distributors will do a better job serving the roofing contractor. Roofing sales and estimating people won’t have to tip extra at the car wash. And landfill operators will have to do without a few megatons of sample boards every year.