Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Channel Killing Blunders: The E-Store

Distributor Policies – Worst Practice Mistakes Revisited

In the past couple of weeks I have been bombarded with horror stories of distributor policies gone wrong.  I have to wonder how and why so many manufacturers fall into the same traps.  Perhaps they don’t have a vehicle for benchmarking distributor practices. 

Manufacturers with strong distribution channels typically participate in Distributor Associations and one can surmise networking takes place to some extent or another.  If not directly with other manufacturers, then information may be exchanged by way of distributors sharing best practices.  The others, well some days it’s tough to imagine where they get their input. 

Management teams from Europe and Asia often don’t truly understand how the channel works in North America.  The whole concept of distribution sounds as goofy as buying hot dogs at a barber shop to their native sensibilities.  I mean, if you don’t really understand value proposition of a distribution channel, the set up really does seem like a massive margin giveaway.  This isn’t an excuse, but it is a definite possibility.  Wholesale distribution in North America is generally more professionally developed, provides greater value to their supply partners and customers than channels elsewhere who merely handle paperwork. 

Newly minted MBA’s often only understand wholesale distribution in an abstract way.  After reviewing some of the case studies developed around wholesale distribution for MBA programs, our kind of industrially focused and knowledge-based distribution lacks representation.  Instead, one is likely to see stories of food, beverage and pharmaceutical distributors.  In other words, unless they seek to understand what we do, they can only imagine our model looks just like the local Dr. Pepper Distributor.  

Regardless of the reason, their mistakes cost them plenty… money, marketshare, growth, brand recognition and the good will of the world’s largest industrial selling resource.

I plan to publish a series of channel killing blunders but to get you started here is a good example of a bad strategy:

Case 1: Poorly thought out E-Store Strategies

Everybody needs an e-Store

Manufacturers are playing with the concept of e-stores.  They get bombarded with articles and sales calls expounding the benefits of an e-store presence.  In theory, the ideas make sense.  Provide customers who lack a local distributor relationship an easy outlet for your products.  While in most cases, a list of distributors by zip code would work just as well at a fraction cost.  Based on the view of e-stores only serving customers without a distributor partner, the e-store concept still seems benign.

Issue arises.  Nobody actually uses the e-store.  Careers are on the line.  Somebody has to do something.  After all, the manufacturer laid out big bucks to have it programmed, produced and populated.  Why not call on marketing to attract business?

Distributors discouraged
Advertising your e-store irritates your channel.  Distributors hate direct business because it has a long checkered history of abuse.  Distributors value sales leads.  Most do a pretty good job of following up on the leads.  Progressive distributors see leads as door openers for not only one product but for their whole line card.  Some turn into immediate sales opportunities, others bloom over time (after weeks, months, and years of nurturing calls).  But when an e-store is in place, it becomes the recipient of any new leads.  If the advertising works, the e-store gets traffic.  But since most customers want someone to provide intelligent assistance along the way, e-store purchases don’t happen.

Still no customers down at the e-store

The e-store manager contemplates business levels (or lack thereof), they assume published list prices are the culprit.  Cutting prices on the e-store should attract customers who are “on the fence” or comparing brands.  Unfortunately, discounting published prices impacts distributor margins.  When the distributor’s customer says, “I can buy the product cheaper on the internet.”  The distributor salesperson usually gets the sale, but at a lower than normal margin.  If they hear the “cheaper on the internet” story more than a couple of times, most distributors will switch their strategy.  Distributors who once actively sold the manufacturers product by finding new applications and converting competitive business invest their time in more profitable products (in selling time is money).

If the online price gets low enough and the distributor feels they no longer make sufficient gross margin to turn a profit, the distributor will begin to actively target the e-store owners product for conversion to another line.

A word of warning to the guy with an e-store

If you are congratulating yourself on not yet seeing distributors switch your products at the customer, you’re not out of danger.  Product conversions take time.  By the time you notice the effort, it will be too late.

Shipping is part of the price
If the customer gets better shipping terms than the manufacturer’s authorized distributor, it will affect your distributor channel too.  Why provide free freight to online customers, but charge distributors a freight fee?  A combination of low prices and free freight will “whip up” your channel’s blood pressure just as quickly as dirty deeds done dirt cheap pricing.  

Sometimes, the e-store doesn’t even belong to you

Every manufacturer should have a published distributor policy for advertised prices.  Without even committing a single of the e-store sins described above, a handful of distributors adopted strategies for using the internet (and very low pricing) as a tool for expanding their business. 

These wholesalers have taken on a new business model for business.   They see themselves inserting technology in place of a sales force.  Working the internet model to expand their business to the world is their credo.  I appreciate their entrepreneurial bent.   However, I also see the poaching effect of their very low prices on the distributors who actively sell.  They provide deep discounts and do absolutely nothing to promote their manufacturers’ brand, discover new applications or grow the marketshare.

I am not an attorney
I’m not passing myself off as an attorney, but here is my understanding. 

It is illegal to dictate price levels.  If the on-line guy wants to give the product away, that’s their right.  However, you can dictate lowest advertised price.  The customer can still call and negotiate, but that’s another step and it’s the banner add with a super low price that hurts your distributor efforts.

We’ve all benefited from best practices.  Perhaps some can benefit from a list of worst practices.  If you see a manufacturer who is going down this path, shoot them a link to this post. 

Better yet, if you have a favorite worst practice to share, send to me.  We’ll add it to our list (without naming names or companies).

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David Gordon said...

Frank - yes, it can be a decreasing circle. eSales will target a segment of customers and/or be an alternative order entry system. Few can be like Amazon and sell product for little profit and hope to add profitability to the business in the future. They have a different business model. Salespeople will need to learn to sell while integrating the benefits of mobility tools and e-procurement. Still need to create demand.

And yes, manufacturers can set "advertised" pricing (it's called an IMAP - we've suggested models to some manufacturers) and they can restrict geographic reach via eSales if they can get POS data from the distributor (a challenge) or can reserve right to audit sales (if they are willing to lose a distributor ... unlikely!).

But if manufacturers are not willing to manage online territory authorization, do they have the same "right" to impose the restriction for branch sales? Especially when they provide Grainger, AmazonSupply and others to sell anywhere?

Internet selling starts to change many aspects of the distribution game ... especially when manufacturers are concerned about possibly, maybe, could be losing any, some, don't know sales via another channel.

David Gordon

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments. They are right on.

For other members of this blog community... David Gordon is one of the leaders in the Electrical Distribution community. He hosts a very popular blog site. Electrical Trends. I recommend you look it up.