This scenario highlights the importance of identifying the most efficient and effective manner in which to place a product into the hands of the customer. This mechanism of connecting the producer with the customer is referred to as the channel of distribution. Earlier we referred to the creation of time and place utility. This is the primary purpose of the channel. It is an extremely complex process, and in the case of many companies, it is the only element of marketing where cost savings are still possible.
In this chapter, we will look at the evolution of the channel of distribution. We shall see that several basic functions have emerged that are typically the responsibility of a channel member. Also, it will become clear that channel selection is not a static, once-and-for-all choice, but that it is a dynamic part of marketing planning. As was true for the product, the channel must be managed in order to work. Unlike the product, the channel is composed of individuals and groups that exhibit unique traits that might be in conflict, and that have a constant need to be motivated. These issues will also be addressed. Finally, the institutions or members of the channel will be introduced and discussed.
The dual functions of channels
Just as with the other elements of the firm's marketing program, distribution activities are undertaken to facilitate the exchange between marketers and consumers. There are two basic functions performed between the manufacturer and the ultimate consumer.1 (See Exhibit 31.) The first called the exchange function, involves sales of the product to the various members of the channel of distribution. The second, the physical distribution function, moves products through the exchange channel, simultaneously with title and ownership. Decisions concerning both of these sets of activities are made in conjunction with the firm's overall marketing plan and are designed so that the firm can best serve its customers in the market place. In actuality, without a channel of distribution the exchange process would be far more difficult and ineffective.
The key role that distribution plays is satisfying a firm's customer and achieving a profit for the firm. From a distribution perspective, customer satisfaction involves maximizing time and place utility to: the organization's suppliers, intermediate customers, and final customers. In short, organizations attempt to get their products to their customers in the most effective ways. Further, as households find their needs satisfied by an increased quantity and variety of goods, the mechanism of exchange—i.e. the channel—increases in importance.
Exhibit 31: Dual-flow system in marketing channels.