I think you just answered your own question. Not that many people want 20-year-old speakers. Why should a dealer pay out for them when he stands as small a chance at selling them as your friend would?
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"Also not too many people want speakers that are 20 years old."Maybe not, but apparently your friend does. He's paid to have them rebuilt, which would seem to fall under the category of custom work, assuming that particular speaker model is no longer being made by the company. In that case, the guarantees would be limited. Many dealers won't allow ANY returns on custom orders, even for brand new items from product lines that they carry. So while not ideal, it may be the best available compromise, and is certainly better than nothing. One generally risks their investment with custom work like modifications, special orders and restoration of vintage units, I would think. Hopefully, he'll like the finished product and it will become a non-issue.
I've been a customer who changed his mind, and I've been a dealer whose customer changed his mind. The needs and concerns on both sides are legitimate.
Under the circumstances I think what the dealer is requesting is reasonable, especially if it's a big-ticket item. The alternative would be for the dealer to charge a fairly high restocking fee, or decline to take the order altogether.
I know of a case where a dealer went out of business because of a single large order (hundred thousand dollar ballpark) that was cancelled. If the customer had been willing to give him time to find a buyer, he would have survived.
A dealer picks and chooses very carefully what to invest his limited funds in, because not everything is a good investment. He needs to put his money into product lines and demo units that will in turn make money for him by generating multiple sales. Having a large portion of his funds tied up in a one-of-a-kind, relatively unsellable item that he never would have chosen (and may not even like) can really hurt his business.