As consumers, we have clearly taken for granted that when we go to a supermarket the shelves will be filled with products we want; when we are thirsty there will be a Coke machine 0r bar around the corner; and, when we do not have time to shop, we can pick-up the telephone and order from the J.C. Penney catalog or through the Internet. Of course, if we give it some thought, we realize that this magic is not a given, and that hundreds of thousands of people plan, organize, and labor long hours so that this modern convenience is available to you, the consumer. It has not always been this way, and it is still not this way in many other countries. Perhaps a little anthropological discussion will help our understanding.
The channel structure in a primitive culture is virtually nonexistent. The family or tribal group is almost entirely self-sufficient. The group is composed of individuals who are both communal producers and consumers of whatever goods and services can be made available. As economies evolve, people begin to specialize in some aspect of economic activity. They engage in farming, hunting, or fishing, or some other basic craft. Eventually this specialized skill produces excess products, which they exchange or trade for needed goods that have been produced by others. This exchange process or barter marks the beginning of formal channels of distribution. These early channels involve a series of exchanges between two parties who are producers of one product and consumers of the other.
With the growth of specialization, particularly industrial specialization, and with improvements in methods of transportation and communication, channels of distribution become longer and more complex. Thus, corn grown in Illinois may be processed into corn chips in West Texas, which are then distributed throughout the United States. Or, turkeys raised in Virginia are sent to New York so that they can be shipped to supermarkets in Virginia. Channels do not always make sense.
The channel mechanism also operates for service products. In the case of medical care, the channel mechanism may consist of a local physician, specialists, hospitals, ambulances, laboratories, insurance companies, physical therapists, home care professionals, and so forth. All of these individuals are interdependent, and could not operate successfully without the cooperation and capabilities of all the others.
Based on this relationship, we define a marketing channel as sets of interdependent organizations involved in the process of making a product or service available for use or consumption, as well as providing a payment mechanism for the provider.
This definition implies several important characteristics of the channel. First, the channel consists of institutions, some under the control of the producer and some outside the producer's control. Yet all must be recognized, selected, and integrated into an efficient channel arrangement.
Second, the channel management process is continuous and requires continuous monitoring and reappraisal. The channel operates 24 hours a day and exists in an environment where change is the norm.
Finally, channels should have certain distribution objectives guiding their activities. The structure and management of the marketing channel is thus in part a function of a firm's distribution objective. It is also a part of the marketing objectives, especially the need to make an acceptable profit. Channels usually represent the largest costs in marketing a product.