Objectives: A firm’s distribution objectives will ultimately be highly related—some will enhance each other while others will compete. For example, as we have discussed, more exclusive and higher service distribution will generally entail less intensity and lesser reach. Cost has to be traded off against speed of delivery and intensity (it is much more expensive to have a product available in convenience stores than in supermarkets, for example).
Narrow vs. wide reach: The extent to which a firm should seek narrow (exclusive) vs. wide (intense) distribution depends on a number of factors. One issue is the consumer’s likelihood of switching and willingness to search. For example, most consumers will switch soft drink brands rather than walking from a vending machine to a convenience store several blocks away, so intensity of distribution is essential here. However, for sewing machines, consumers will expect to travel at least to a department or discount store, and premium brands may have more credibility if they are carried only in full service specialty stores.
Retailers involved in a more exclusive distribution arrangement are likely to be more “loyal”—i.e., they will tend to
- Recommend the product to the customer and thus sell large quantities;
- Carry larger inventories and selections;
- Provide more services
Thus, for example, Compaq in its early history instituted a policy that all computers must be purchased through a dealer. On the surface, Compaq passed up the opportunity to sell large numbers of computers directly to large firms without sharing the profits with dealers. On the other hand, dealers were more likely to recommend Compaq since they knew that consumers would be buying these from dealers. When customers came in asking for IBMs, the dealers were more likely to indicate that if they really wanted those, they could have them—“But first, let’s show you how you will get much better value with a Compaq.”
Distribution opportunities: Distribution provides a number of opportunities for the marketer that may normally be associated with other elements of the marketing mix. For example, for a cost, the firm can promote its objective by such activities as in-store demonstrations/samples and special placement (for which the retailer is often paid). Placement is also an opportunity for promotion—e.g., airlines know that they, as “prestige accounts,” can get very good deals from soft drink makers who are eager to have their products offered on the airlines. Similarly, it may be useful to give away, or sell at low prices, certain premiums (e.g., T-shirts or cups with the corporate logo.) It may even be possible to have advertisements printed on the retailer’s bags (e.g., “Got milk?”)
Other opportunities involve “parallel” distribution (e.g., having products sold both through conventional channels and through the Internet or factory outlet stores). Partnerships and joint promotions may involve distribution (e.g., Burger King sells clearly branded Hershey pies).
Deciding on a strategy. In view of the need for markets to be balanced, the same distribution strategy is unlikely to be successful for each firm. The question, then, is exactly which strategy should one use? It may not be obvious whether higher margins in a selective distribution setting will compensate for smaller unit sales. Here, various research tools are useful. In focus groups, it is possible to assess what consumers are looking for an which attributes are more important. Scanner data, indicating how frequently various products are purchased and items whose sales correlate with each other may suggest the best placement strategies. It may also, to the extent ethically possible, be useful to observe consumers in the field using products and making purchase decisions. Here, one can observe factors such as (1) how much time is devoted to selecting a product in a given category, (2) how many products are compared, (3) what different kinds of products are compared or are substitutes (e.g., frozen yogurt vs. cookies in a mall), (4) what are “complementing” products that may cue the purchase of others if placed nearby. Channel members—both wholesalers and retailers—may have valuable information, but their comments should be viewed with suspicion as they have their own agendas and may distort information.