From a showroom in a squat, brick building in Havre de Grace, with red and white balloons bobbing outside, Bob Rynes sells merchandise no one wants to buy - or even look at. No one wanders into the store, next door to a beauty salon, just to browse.
That's OK with "Baltimore Bob," as his supplier has dubbed Rynes, owner of Blue Moon Casket Co., the first casket retail store in Maryland.
Rynes opened this month in a carpeted showroom just big enough for a tidy desk and a dozen gleaming caskets sitting side by side, figuring he'll win customers over by saving them money.
"There's a mindset that you have to get everything from a funeral home," including a funeral's single most expensive item, the casket, Rynes said.
He and a growing number of casket retailers are challenging that thinking and going head to head with the $60 billion-a-year funeral home industry. Consumers price shop on everything else, they argue, so why not on one of the most expensive, albeit one of the final, items a person is likely to need.
Since 1994, when the Federal Trade Commission began requiring funeral homes to accept third-party caskets - and banned extra handling fees - funeral-product stores and Web sites have cropped up around the country. The 1984 "Funeral Rule" required funeral homes to give consumers a price list for their goods and services.
Between 250 and 300 casket retailers operate in the United States. Many advertise that they can undercut funeral home prices by hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Asked how he can keep prices lower, Rynes barely contains his disdain of the funeral home business.
"I'm not as greedy as the funeral homes," said Rynes, who said some charge as much as 75 percent more than he does. "Funeral homes do it because they can."
From his showroom, Rynes sells the Queen of Heaven, an 18-gauge steel casket, for $2,299. He said he has seen the same model selling for as much as $4,000 at some funeral homes.
He designed Blue Moon's selling space with light colors and soothing prints, as a more cheerful, relaxed contrast, he hopes, to a somber funeral home atmosphere. "I don't look at it as being around death," he said. "I look at it as celebrating the life that was."
Funeral home operators say there's a place for the new generation of casket stores "if that's a choice the consumer wants to make," said John C. Carmon, a past president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Carmon, also funeral director of Carmon Community Funeral Homes, eight small funeral homes near Hartford, Conn., said most funeral homes price their caskets competitively.
"Because of the hype that surrounds many of the stores, the impression is they are much less, and that's not necessarily true," Carmon said. "They're banking on the fact that the funeral home will not be proactive and go into a price war."
Rynes is not alone in his outspoken criticism of funeral homes' death-care dominance. Funeral homes number more than 22,000 in the United States, compared with several hundred coffin retailers.
John Hurd, owner of the Casket Store in Auburn, N.Y., said Americans have been too willing to pay for funerals without questioning the costs.
"It's not how much we spend but how we spend it," said Hurd, who operates a showroom with 30 casket models in a downtown district next to banks, insurance companies and a grocery store.
In 1998, his first year in business, he sold three caskets. But people have begun to realize that they can buy a casket outside a funeral home, he said. "This past week I sold four," he said.
Casket retail stores could become more common sights for consumers.
Family and Friends Quality Discount Caskets Showroom opened this month on North Charles Street in Baltimore, with seven models on display and seven sales representatives and managers.
"Consumers should have a right to choose where to get their merchandise," said Gardner Redd, president and chief executive officer of Trustworthy Casket Co., which runs the new store. It also sells vaults and memorials.
Frank Roda, a sales representative for Orion Caskets, a supplier based in Toronto and New York, said casket retailing is way ahead of its time.
"It's inevitable that this business will succeed," Roda said. "Consumers are becoming more educated. No one can afford a $10,000 funeral anymore. They're looking for alternatives."
Funeral directors say alternatives have drawbacks. They must accept coffins purchased elsewhere, usually delivered by the retailer to the funeral home. Carmon said the funeral home then has no control over whether the consumer ends up getting what he or she wanted.
"We just hope the product they're sending is in fact what the consumer ordered, but the fact is that if anything does happen with the casket, it's a reflection on us because we're handling the services," he said.
When one of his clients ordered a casket from a retailer, it was delivered with a cracked top. Carmon called the retailer in to inspect it.