Challenges Facing the Industrial Distributor Today

By John Sonnhalter, Rainmaker Journeyman, Sonnhalter

Every year, Industrial Distribution magazine puts out their annual survey of distributor operations. Here are some highlights from the 69th version and my opinion as to where they should be spending their time and effort.

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While the economy is their biggest concern, it’s one they have little control over. Truth be known, I don’t believe the industrial segment of the market ever got back to levels pre-2008. Sales and margins are down (show me a business that doesn’t have similar issues) and that’s a natural reaction when sales drop, you try to protect existing business and the easiest way of doing that is lowering prices. Distributors can sometimes be their own worst enemies. Sell value not price.
Here’s my view of what these distributors should be concerning themselves with:
  • Specialize – if you’re a general line distributor, I wish you luck as you won’t be in business too much longer. If the only thing you have to sell is price and availability, the big guys are going to eat you alive. The cutting tool, power transmission and other specialized distributors who add value to the sale will and can be more competitive. If you have a  cutting tool problem on a CNC machine, Grainger or Amazon aren’t going to be sending anyone out to help you solve the problem.
  • Promote value-added relationship selling – they are the local guys and should be selling themselves as the guys who have your back (assuming you have value to add). If not, look for a buyer.
  • E-Commerce – Get in or you won’t be long for the world. We live in front of a computer screen and the “I want it now” mentality that we find on the consumer side has trickled over to ours. Let’s face it, some people would like to place orders after hours and they would like to know if you have it available and can have it delivered the next day.
  • Buying groups – If you’re not in one, get in one. They are the easiest way for you to stay price competitive, and many offer other services in the day-to-day operations.
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