Few producers sell their goods directly to the final users. Instead, most use intermediaries to bring their products to market. They try to forge a marketing channel (or distribution channel)—a set of interdependent organizations that help make a product or service available for use or consumption by the consumer or business user.
A company’s channel decisions directly affect every other marketing decision. Pricing depends on whether the company works with national discount chains, uses high-quality specialty stores, or sells directly to consumers via the Web. The firm’s sales force and communications decisions depend on how much persuasion, training, motivation, and support its channel partners need. Whether a company develops or acquires certain new products may depend on how well those products fit the capabilities of its channel members. For example, Kodak initially sold its EasyShare printers only in Best Buy stores to take advantage of the retailer’s on-the-floor sales staff and their ability to educate buyers on the economics of paying higher initial prices but lower long-term ink costs.
Companies often pay too little attention to their distribution channels, sometimes with damaging results. In contrast, many companies have used imaginative distribution systems to gain a competitive advantage. FedEx’s creative and imposing distribution system made it a leader in express delivery. Enterprise revolutionized the car-rental business by setting up off-airport rental offices. And Amazon.com pioneered the sales of books and a wide range of other goods via the Internet.
Distribution channel decisions often involve long-term commitments to other firms. For example, companies such as Ford, HP, or McDonald’s can easily change their advertising, pricing, or promotion programs. They can scrap old products and introduce new ones as market tastes demand. But when they set up distribution channels through contracts with franchisees, independent dealers, or large retailers, they cannot readily replace these channels with company-owned stores or websites if conditions change. Therefore, management must design its channels carefully, with an eye on tomorrow’s likely selling environment as well as today’s.
How Channel Members Add Value
Why do producers give some of the selling job to channel partners? After all, doing so means giving up some control over how and to whom they sell their products. Producers use intermediaries because they create greater efficiency in making goods available to target markets. Through their contacts, experience, specialization, and scale of operation, intermediaries usually offer the firm more than it can achieve on its own.
Figure 12.1 shows how using intermediaries can provide economies. Figure 12.1A shows three manufacturers, each using direct marketing to reach three customers. This system requires nine different contacts. Figure 12.1B shows the three manufacturers working through one distributor, which contacts the three customers. This system requires only six contacts. In this way, intermediaries reduce the amount of work that must be done by both producers and consumers.
From the economic system’s point of view, the role of marketing intermediaries is to transform the assortment of products made by producers into the assortment wanted by consumers. Producers make narrow assortments of products in large quantities, but consumers want broad assortments of products in small quantities. Marketing channel members buy large quantities from many producers and break them down into the smaller quantities and broader assortments wanted by consumers.
For example, Unilever makes millions of bars of Lever 2000 hand soap each day, but you want to buy only a few bars at a time. So big food, drug, and discount retailers, such as Superstore, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Walmart, buy Lever 2000 by the...