CHANNELS OF
DISTRIBUTION

Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127

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Channel Structure and Membership Issues

Paths to the customer. For most products and situations, it is generally more efficient for a manufacturer to go through a distributor rather than selling directly to the customer. This is especially the case when consumers need to have variety and assortment (e.g., consumer would like to buy not just toothpaste but also other personal hygiene products, and even other grocery products at the same place), when products are bought in small volumes or at low value (e.g., a candy bar sells for less than $1.00), or even intermediaries have skills or resources that the manufacturer does not (a sales force, warehousing, and financing). Nevertheless, there are situations when these conditions are not met—most typically in industrial settings. As an extreme case, most airlines are perfectly happy only being able to buy aircraft and accessories from Boeing and would prefer not to go through a retailer—particularly since the planes are often highly customized. More in the "gray" area, it may or may not be appropriate to sell microcomputers directly to consumers rather than going through a distributor—the costs of providing those costs may be roughly comparable to the margin that a distributor would take.

Potential channel structures. Channel structures can assume a variety of forms. In the extreme case of Boeing aircraft or commercial satellites, the product is made by the manufacturer and sent directly to the customer’s preferred delivery site. The manufacturer, may, however, involve a broker or agent who handles negotiations but does not take physical possession of the property. When deals take on a smaller magnitude, however, it may be appropriate to involve retailer--but no other intermediary. For example, automobiles, small planes, and yachts are frequently sold by the manufacturer to a dealer who then sends directly to the customer. It does not make sense to deliver these bulky products to a wholesaler only to move them again. On the other hand, it would not make sense for a California customer to fly to Detroit, buy a car there, and then drive it home. As the need for variety increases, a wholesaler may then be introduced. For example, an office supply store needs to sell more merchandise than any one manufacturer can produce. Therefore, a wholesaler will buy a very large quantity of binders, file folders, staplers, reams of paper, glue sticks, and similar products and sell this in smaller quantities—say 200 staplers at a time—to the office supply store, which, in turn, may go to another wholesaler who has acquired telephones, typewriters, and photocopiers. Note that more than one wholesaler level may be involved—a local wholesaler serving the Inland Empire may buy from each of the two wholesalers listed above and then sell all, or most, of the products needed by local office supply stores. Finally, even in longer channels, agents or brokers may be involved. This, in particular, will happen when the owner of a small, entrepreneurial company has more experience with technology than with businesses negotiations. Here, the manufacturer can be freed, in return for paying the agent, from such tasks, allowing him or her to focus on what he or she does well.

Criteria in selecting channel members. Typically, the most important consideration whether to include a potential channel member is the cost at which he or she can perform the required functions at the needed level of service. For example, it will be much less expensive for a specialty foods manufacturer to have a wholesaler get its products to the retailer. On the other hand, it would not be cost effective for Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart to involve a third party to move their merchandise—Wal-Mart has been able to develop, based on its information systems and huge demand volumes, a more efficient distribution system. Note the important caveat that cost alone is not the only consideration—premium furniture must arrive in the store on time in perfect condition, so paying more for a more dependable distributor would be indicated. Further, channels for perishable products are often inefficiently short, but the additional cost is needed in order to ensure that the merchandise moves quickly. Note also that image is important—Wal-Mart could very efficiently carry Rolex watches, but this would destroy value from the brand.

"Piggy-backing." A special opportunity to gain distribution that a manufacturer would otherwise lack involves "piggy-backing." Here, a manufacturer enlists another manufacturer that already has a channel to a desired customer base, to pick up products into an existing channel. For example, a manufacturer of rhinoserous and hippopotamus shampoo might be able to reach zoos by approaching a manufacturer of crocodile teeth cleaning supplies that already reaches this target. In the case of reciprocal piggy-backing, the shampoo manufacturer might then, in turn, bring the teeth cleaning supplies through its existing channel to exotic animal veterinarians.

Parallel Distribution. Most manufacturers find it useful to go through at least one wholesaler in order to reach the retailer, and it is simply not efficient for Colgate to sell directly to pathetic little "mom and pop" neighborhood stores. However, large retail chains such as K-Mart and Ralph’s buy toothpaste and other Colgate products in such large volumes that it may be efficient to sell directly to those chains. Thus, we have a "parallel" distribution network whereby some retailers buy through a distributor and others do not. Note that we may also be tempted to add a direct channel—e.g., many clothing manufacturers have factory outlet stores. However, note that the full service retailers will likely object to being "undercut" in this manner and may decide to drop or give less emphasis to the brand. It may be possible to minimize this contract by precautions such as (1) having outlet stores located in vacation areas not within easy access of most people, (2) presenting the merchandise as being slightly irregular, and/or (3) emphasizing discontinued brands and merchandise not sold in regular stores.

Evaluating Channel Performance. The performance of channel members should be periodically monitored—a channel member may have looked attractive earlier but may not, in practice be able to live up to promises. (This can be either because of complacency or because the channel member simply did not realize the skills and resources needed to perform to standards). Thus, performance level (service outputs) and costs should be evaluated. Further, changes in technology or in the market place may make it worthwhile to shift certain functions to another channel member (e.g., a distributor has expanded its coverage into another region or may have gained or lost access to certain retail chains). Finally, the extent to which compensation is awarded in proportion to performance should be reassessed—e.g., a distributor that ends up holding inventory longer or taking on more returns may need additional compensation.