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 Management and Conflict

Vertical integration. Generically speaking, products may come and reach consumers through a chain somewhat like this:

Raw materials ---> component parts ---> product manufacturing

---> product/brand marketing ---> wholesaler ---> retailer

---> consumer

Money can be made at each stage in the chain and it may be tempting for firms to try to get into all aspects. For example, Henry Ford wanted to make all the components for his own cars, so Ford tried to run its own rubber plantation with limited success. The temptation to try to expand vertically can be especially strong when an industry faces limited growth and thus presents limited opportunities for reinvestment into traditional operations (e.g., if the auto industry is not growing as much as desired, one way to reinvest profits, rather than having to pay them back to stockholders who would then have to pay taxes on the dividends, might be to buy steel mills. The problems, however, is that the management is not used to running such businesses and that managerial time will be spread among more areas.

Business structures. A business can be squarely focused in just one area—e.g., Kentucky Friend Chicken is only in the fast food business and prides itself on this. On the other hand, certain businesses are part of an assortment of businesses that all have common, or at least overlapping, membership. Sometimes, these businesses can be related in some way—for example, Pepsico used to own several restaurant fast food chains, and Microsoft, in addition to being in the software business, used to own Expedia, the online travel service. Here, expertise and brand equity might be transferred from businesses to business. In other situations, however, these "empires" may consist of unrelated businesses that were bought not so much because they "fit" into management expertise, but rather because they were for sale when the conglomerate had money to invest. With the tobacco industry currently being relatively profitable but having a questionable future, a tobacco firm might invest in a software maker. Generally, such investments are risky because of problems with management oversight. In Japan, many firms are part of a keiretsu, or a conglomerate that ties together businesses that can aid each other. For example, a keiretsu might contain an auto division that buys from a steel division. Both of these might then buy from a iron mining division, which in turns buys from a chemical division that also sells to an agricultural division. The agricultural division then sells to the restaurant division, and an electronics division sells to all others, including the auto division. Since the steel division may not have opportunities for reinvestment, it puts its profits in a bank in the center, which in turns lends it out to the electronics division that is experiencing rapid growth. This practice insulates the businesses to some extent against the business cycle, guaranteeing an outlet for at least some product in bad times, but this structure has caused problems in Japan as it has failed to "root out" inefficient keiretsu members which have not had to "shape up" to the rigors of the market.

Motivations for outsourcing. While firms, as discussed above, often have certain motivations for trying to "gobble" up as many business opportunities as possible, there are also reasons for "outsourcing" or contracting out certain functions to others. Auto makers, for example, have often found it profitable to buy a number of components from non-union manufacturers. Often small vendors, run by entrepreneurs, are better motivated to perform certain services—e.g., insurance agents can have an incentive to build up and service a client base more effectively than an internal staff could. It is also possible for outsiders to specialize—chemical firms, for example, may be better able to research and develop paints than auto manufacturers. Smaller independent firms may also operate more leanly, facing market competition better than large, centralized firms. A firm specializing in just making nuts and bolts may have greater economies of scale than Rolls Royce, which makes only a limited number of cars.

Channel Power. Some channel members need others more than others need them. For example, Wal-Mart has a lot more power, given its large volume purchases, than many of its suppliers. There are several sources of power. Reward power involves a channel member being able to positively reinforce another’s performance—e.g., Coca Cola may be able to give a price break or pay a fee for additional shelf space. A retailer that meets a certain goal—e.g., the sale of 50,000 cases per month—may receive a bonus. In contrast, coercive power involves the threat of a punishment. A large retailer, for example, may tell a small manufacturer that no further orders will be forthcoming unless a price discount is offered. Expert power includes knowledge. Wal-Mart, for example, because of its heavy investment in information technology, can persuasively argue about likely sales volumes at different price levels. "Legitimate" power involves government or other regulations—e.g., auto dealers have a great deal of power over auto makers because only they are allowed to sell to end customers in the continental U.S. under most circumstances. Finally, referent power involves the desire of the other side to be associated—most manufacturers of upscale merchandise are highly motivated to ensure their availability at Nordstrom’s.

Channel conflict. We have seen throughout the term that conflict exists between channel members. For example, Coca Cola would like to increase its sales by offering a discount on its cans. However, the retailer knows that overall soda sales will not go up much when Coke is put on sale—consumers who bought other brands will just switch, for the most part. Therefore, the retailer might like to "pocket" any discount that Coke offers. Similarly, Bass might like to increase its sales by selling to Costco, but its full service retailers will object to this competition. A number of approaches to resolution are available, but none are perfect. Sharing of information may help build trust, but this can be expensive, cumbersome, and may result in this information being available to competitors. The two sides might seek outside mediation, with a supposedly neutral party suggesting a fair solution, or the two sides may try to compromise on their own. One side may accommodate the other, but may not be motivated to continue to do so in the future, or the other may try to coerce its way through threats of punishment.