Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2001   by Bruce Merrifield and Steve Epner

E-Commerce Implications for Wholesalers and Distributors

Wouldn’t you and your customers want to shop the entire universe of products, not just the lines one supplier happens to stock or represent? How long will it be before any given channel offers the shopping equivalent of what Sabre system (or on the Web) has done for travelers? (Hint: The customer will win this war more quickly than more than 80% of the players in any given channel might expect.)

Isn’t giving customers the total shopping process at one site? What will Web-enabled self-service shopping scenarios for 2001 involve for the quality, quantity and skill sets for both inside and outside sales forces? Who will continuously create and manage the information on the selling site? Our guess is that there will be a need for a smaller staff who will be able to answer mostly higher-level questions and to continually add content to the web site. Automation will elevate both the quality of the customers’ questions and the talent needed to respond.

Amazon is skimming the cream of U.S. book buyers, the 10% of the customers that buy 50% of the products. If the heavy buyers leave the retail bookstores, and the browsers stay to read books for free and then put them back, what does this do for bookstores, which have very high fixed costs? Wholesaler-distributors may have more adaptable variable cost structures than retailers, but most have huge cross-subsidies between customer groups, products, branches, and valuable employees that support “coasters.” E-commerce will exploit all of these cross-subsidies, causing old business models that have bundled the good with the bad to fall apart.

Now that Amazon has enough traffic and purchasing information, they are changing the new book development and distribution process. Publishers now pay Amazon a fee to assess the odds of a prospective book selling enough copies. (This is similar to A.C. Nielsen’s creation of an information service business from grocery store scanning data. Every would-be centralized database for channel activity will have this new infomediary opportunity.) Interactive web commerce applications will allow for the rebirth of many information-rich, higher-value-per-pound niche products that heretofore couldn’t get pushed through traditional channels. Who will provide these new physical distribution and selling solutions for the appropriate niche items? And who will become enough of a channel activity database to become the A.C. Nielsen information service for the manufacturers?

But show us the money! Amazon has compiled an incredible sales growth curve, but it appears to be losing 20 cents on every dollar of sales. A lot of wholesaler-distributors could grow quickly too, if they sold goods for 80 cents that cost a dollar! The question is whether Amazon will make money over the long haul. Amazon has also had to spend enormous amounts of money to acquire new customers, but these costs will collapse. Although analysts don’t expect Amazon to make a profit before 2001, we have seen projections for enormous profits to begin then. One big problem for Amazon and any channel product database initiative is to reach a margin level that exceeds potentially enormous up front database development and maintenance costs. If the breakeven point can be reached, then web sites can handle millions more transactions for little incremental cost, allowing for huge flow-through of incremental margin to the bottom line. Amazon seems to have that possibility by 2001.

What does this mean to wholesale distribution channels? Some giant distributors have spent millions of dollars on their web initiatives and have little in recorded sales to show so far. Do their products have the same potential as books, which are 100% information, easy to ship, and not necessarily needed today or tomorrow? Usually not, by a long shot! If a traditional wholesaler-distributor or a new infomediary were to create a channel-wide, comparative product database, could the company generate enough new margin from this service to get a return on both its large set-up and maintenance costs? How does this apply, for example, to Grainger’s current web initiatives for parametric searching of electric motors and industrial lamps? Grainger could eventually create a database of all products they stock and don’t stock in order to make 100% of their manufacturers’ products available to end-users on a drop-ship basis. The company could also try to pursue master-DC consignment initiatives as Amazon has done. But will the incremental margins provide a positive return on web investments?

After spending well in excess of $10 million, Ingram Micro, the more than $24 billion PC/network components distributor, gave up on doing its database alone and partnered with’s industry-wide product database. If infomediary businesses like Amazon and are struggling to get to breakeven in the biggest, most web-promising channels like books and PCs, then will most other channels have to eventually move to a shared-industry, information utility model to serve the end-users? This could parallel the co-operative pattern that we’re seeing with the development of industry data warehouses in the oil, drug, electrical, paper and consumer goods channels to make continuous replenishment and automated receiving possible.

One way or the other, customers want the ability to compare, so they may use their own software “agents” to get the data they want from many sites and build their own customized, comparative desktop catalog. Or one or more wholesaler-distributors will use agents to do the same, offering instant availability and price comparisons on their own sites to generate traffic and usage data to their advantage.

Reprinted by permission from Electronic Commerce for Distribution Channels, published by the Distribution Research & Education Foundation, Washington, DC. The report can be ordered by phone at (202) 872-0885 or online at a 5% discount at

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