Evidence suggests that a channel should be managed just like the product, promotion, and pricing functions. This channel management process contains five steps.
Analyze the consumer
We begin the process of channel management by answering two questions. First, to whom shall we sell this merchandise immediately? Second, who are our ultimate users and buyers? Depending upon a host of factors, including the type of product, functions performed in the channel, and location in the channel, the immediate and ultimate customers may be identical or they may be quite separate. In both cases, some fundamental questions would apply. There is a need to know what the customer needs, where they buy, when they buy, why they buy from certain outlets, and how they buy.
It is best that we first identify the traits of the ultimate user, since the results of this evaluation might determine the other channel institutions we would use to meet these needs. For example, the buying characteristics of the purchaser of a high-quality VCR might be as follows:
- purchased only from a well-established, reputable dealer
- purchased only after considerable shopping to compare prices and merchandise characteristics
- purchaser willing to go to some inconvenience (time and distance) to locate the most acceptable brand
- purchased only after extended conversations involving all interested parties, including dealer, users, and purchasers
- purchase may be postponed
- purchased only from a dealer equipped to render prompt and reasonable product service
These buying specifications illustrate the kinds of requirements that the manufacturer must discover. In most cases, purchase specifications are fairly obvious and can be discovered without great difficulty. On the other hand, some are difficult to determine. For example, certain consumers will not dine at restaurants that serve alcohol; others will patronize only supermarkets that exhibit definite ethnic characteristics in their merchandising. Nonetheless, by careful and imaginative research, most of the critical factors that bear on consumer buying specifications can be determined.
Knowing the buying specifications of consumers, the channel planner can decide on the type or types of wholesaler or retailer through which a product should be sold. This requires that a manufacturer contemplating distribution through particular types of retailers become intimately familiar with the precise location and performance characteristics of those he is considering.
In much the same way that buying specifications of ultimate users are determined, the manufacturers must also discover buying specifications of resellers. Of particular importance is the question, "from whom do my retail outlets prefer to buy?" The answer to this question determines the types of wholesalers (if any) that the manufacturer should use. Although many retailers prefer to buy directly from the manufacturers, this is not always the case. Often, the exchange requirements of manufacturers (e.g. infrequent visit, large order requirements, and stringent credit terms) are the opposite of those desired by retailers. Such retailers would rather buy from local distributors who have lenient credit terms and offer a wide assortment of merchandise.
Establish the channel objectives
The channel plan is derived from channel objectives. They are based on the requirements of the purchasers and users, the overall marketing strategy, and the long-run goals of the corporation. However, in cases when a company is just getting started, or an older company is trying to carve out a new market niche, the channel objectives may be the dominant objectives. For example, a small manufacturer wants to expand outside the local market. An immediate obstacle is the limited shelf space available to this manufacturer. The addition of a new product to the shelves generally means that space previously assigned to competitive products must be obtained. Without this exposure, the product is doomed.
As one would expect, there is wide diversity of form that channel objectives can take. The following areas encompass the major categories:
- Growth in sales by reaching new markets, and/or increasing sales in existing markets.
- Maintenance or improvement of market share–educate or assist channel components in their efforts to increase the amount of product they handle.
- Achieve a pattern of distribution–structure the channel in order to achieve certain time, place, and form utilities.
- Create an efficient channel–improve channel performance by modifying various flow mechanisms.
Specify distribution tasks
After the distribution objectives are set, it is appropriate to determine the specific distribution tasks (functions) to be performed in that channel system. The channel manager must be far more specific in describing the tasks, and must define how these tasks will change depending upon the situation. An ability to do this requires the channel manager to evaluate all phases of the distribution network. Tasks must be identified fully, and costs must be assigned to these tasks. For example, a manufacturer might delineate the following tasks as being necessary in order to profitably reach the target market:
- provide delivery within 48 hours after order placement
- offer adequate storage space
- provide credit to other intermediaries
- facilitate a product return network
- provide readily available inventory (quantity and type)
- provide for absorption of size and grade obsolescence
Evaluate and select from channel alternatives
Determining the specific channel tasks is a prerequisite for the evaluation and selection process. There are four bases for channel alternatives: number of levels, intensity at the various levels, types of intermediaries at each level, and application of selection criterion to channel alternatives.
Number of levels
Channels can range in levels from two to several (five being typical). The two-level channel (producer to consumer) is a direct channel and is possible only if the producer or customer are willing to perform several of the tasks performed by intermediaries. The number of levels in a particular industry might be the same for all the companies simply because of tradition. In other industries, this dimension is more flexible and subject to rapid change.
Intensity at each level
Once the number of levels has been decided, the channel manager needs to determine the actual number of channel components involved at each level. How many retailers in a particular market should be included in the distribution network? How many wholesalers? Although there are limitless possibilities, the categories shown in Exhibit 36 have been used to describe the general alternatives.
The intensity decision is extremely critical, because it is an important part of the firm's overall marketing strategy. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Timex watches have achieved high levels of success through their intensive distribution strategy.
Types of intermediaries
As discussed earlier, there are several types of intermediaries that operate in a particular channel system. The objective is to gather enough information to have a general understanding of the distribution tasks these intermediaries perform. Based on this background information, several alternatives will be eliminated.
1. Exclusive distribution (such as Ethan Allen and Drexel Heritage Furniture)
the use of a single or very few outlets
creates high dealer loyalty and considerable sales support
provides greater control
limits potential sales volume
success of the product is dependent upon the ability of a single intermediary
2. Intensive distribution (such as candy)—the manufacturer attempts to get as many intermediaries of a particular type as possible to carry the product
provides for increased sales volume, wider consumer recognition, and considerable impulse purchasing
low price, low margin, and small order sizes often result
extremely difficult to stimulate and control this large number of intermediaries
3. Selective distribution (such as Baskin-Robbins)–an intermediary strategy, with the exact number of outlets in any given market dependent upon market potential, density of population, dispersion of sales, and competitors' distribution policies
• contains some of the strengths and weaknesses of the other two strategies
• it is difficult to determine the optimal number of intermediaries in each market
Exhibit 36: Levels of channel intensity.
Having identified several possible alternative channel structures, the channel manager is now at a place where he or she can evaluate these alternatives with respect to some set of criteria. Company factors, environmental trends, reputation of the reseller, experience of reseller are just a few examples.
Who should lead
Regardless of the channel framework selected, channels usually perform better if someone is in charge, providing some level of leadership. Essentially, the purpose of this leadership is to coordinate the goals and efforts of channel institutions. The level of leadership can range from very passive to quite active-verging on dictatorial. The style may range from very negative, based on fear and punishment, to very positive, based on encouragement and reward. In a given situation, any of these leadership styles may prove effective.
Given the restrictions inherent in channel leadership, the final question is "who should lead the channel?" Two important trends are worth noting, since they influence the answer. First, if we look at the early years of marketing, i.e. pre-1920, the role of the wholesaler (to bring the producer and consumer together) was most vital. Consequently, during this period, the wholesaler led most channels. This is no longer true. A second trend is the apparent strategy of both manufacturers and retailers to exert power through size. In a type of business cold war, manufacturers and retailers are constantly trying to match each other's size. The result has been some serious warfare to gain channel superiority.
Under which conditions should the manufacturers lead? The wholesaler? The retailer? While the answer is contingent upon many factors, in general, the manufacturer should lead if control of the product (merchandising, repair) is critical and if the design and redesign of the channel is best done by the manufacturer. The wholesaler should lead where the manufacturers and retailers have remained small in size, large in number, relatively scattered geographically, are financially weak, and lack marketing expertise. The retailer should lead when product development and demand stimulation are relatively unimportant and when personal attention to the customer is important.
Evaluating channel member performance
The need to evaluate the performance level of the channel members is just as important as the evaluation of the other marketing functions. Clearly, the marketing mix is quite interdependent and the failure of one component can cause the failure of the whole. There is one important difference, with the exception of the corporate VMS; the channel member is dealing with independent business firms, rather than employees and activities under the control of the channel member, and their willingness to change is lacking.
Sales is the most popular performance criteria used in channel evaluation. Sales might further be subdivided into current sales compared with historical sales, comparisons of sales with other channel members, and comparisons of the channel member's sales with predetermined quotas. Other possible performance criteria are: maintenance of adequate inventory, selling capabilities, attitudes of channel intermediaries toward the product, competition from other intermediaries and from other product line carried by the manufacturers own channel members.
Correcting or modifying the channel
As a result of the evaluation process, or because of other factors such as new competition, technology, or market potential, changes will be made in the channel structure. Because channel relationships have tended to be long-term, and the channel decision has such a pervasive impact on the business, great care should be taken before changing the status quo.
Terminations of channel members not performing at minimum performance standards should be employed only as a last resort. Corrective actions are far less destructive and maintain the goodwill that is so crucial in channel relationships. This requires that the channel manager attempt to find out why these channel members have performed poorly and then implement a strategy to correct these deficiencies.
Sometimes a producer decides that an entirely new channel needs to be added, or an existing one deleted. A manufacturer of camera accessories might decide that he wants to reach the skilled amateur market in addition to the professional photographer market. This would mean designing a different channel, and learning about a different set of intermediaries.