What Is a Distribution Channel in Business and How Does It Work?

Distribution Channel

Investopedia / Jessica Olah

What Is a Distribution Channel?

A distribution channel is a chain of businesses or intermediaries through which a good or service passes until it reaches the final buyer or the end consumer. Distribution channels can include wholesalers, retailers, distributors, and even the internet.

Distribution channels are part of the downstream process, answering the question "How do we get our product to the consumer?" This is in contrast to the upstream process, also known as the supply chain, which answers the question "Who are our suppliers?"

Key Takeaways

  • A distribution channel represents a chain of businesses or intermediaries through which the final buyer purchases a good or service.
  • Distribution channels include wholesalers, retailers, distributors, and the Internet.
  • In a direct distribution channel, the manufacturer sells directly to the consumer. Indirect channels involve multiple intermediaries before the product ends up in the hands of the consumer.

Distribution Channel

Understanding Distribution Channels

A distribution channel is a path by which all goods and services must travel to arrive at the intended consumer. Conversely, it also describes the pathway payments make from the end consumer to the original vendor. Distribution channels can be short or long, and depend on the number of intermediaries required to deliver a product or service.

Goods and services sometimes make their way to consumers through multiple channels—a combination of short and long. Increasing the number of ways a consumer is able to find a good can increase sales. But it can also create a complex system that sometimes makes distribution management difficult. Longer distribution channels can also mean less profit each intermediary charges a manufacturer for its service.

Direct and Indirect Channels

Channels are broken into two different forms—direct and indirect. A direct channel allows the consumer to make purchases from the manufacturer while an indirect channel allows the consumer to buy the goods from a wholesaler or retailer. Indirect channels are typical for goods that are sold in traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

Generally, if there are more intermediaries involved in the distribution channel, the price for a good may increase. Conversely, a direct or short channel may mean lower costs for consumers because they are buying directly from the manufacturer.

Types of Distribution Channels

While a distribution channel may seem endless at times, there are three main types of channels, all of which include the combination of a producer, wholesaler, retailer, and end consumer.

The first channel is the longest because it includes all four: producer, wholesaler, retailer, and consumer. The wine and adult beverage industry is a perfect example of this long distribution channel. In this industry—thanks to laws born out of prohibition—a winery cannot sell directly to a retailer. It operates in the three-tier system, meaning the law requires the winery to first sell its product to a wholesaler who then sells to a retailer. The retailer then sells the product to the end consumer.

The second channel cuts out the wholesaler—where the producer sells directly to a retailer who sells the product to the end consumer. This means the second channel contains only one intermediary. Dell, for example, is large enough to sell its products directly to reputable retailers such as Best Buy.

The third and final channel is a direct-to-consumer model where the producer sells its product directly to the end consumer. Amazon, which uses its own platform to sell Kindles to its customers, is an example of a direct model. This is the shortest distribution channel possible, cutting out both the wholesaler and the retailer.

A distribution channel, also known as placement, is part of a company's marketing strategy, which also includes the product, promotion, and price.

Choosing the Right Distribution Channel

Not all distribution channels work for all products, so it's important for companies to choose the right one. The channel should align with the firm's overall mission and strategic vision including its sales goals.

The method of distribution should add value to the consumer. Do consumers want to speak to a salesperson? Will they want to handle the product before they make a purchase? Or do they want to purchase it online with no hassles? Answering these questions can help companies determine which channel they choose.

Secondly, the company should consider how quickly it wants its product(s) to reach the buyer. Certain products are best served by a direct distribution channel such as meat or produce, while others may benefit from an indirect channel.

If a company chooses multiple distribution channels, such as selling products online and through a retailer, the channels should not conflict with one another. Companies should strategize so one channel doesn't overpower the other.

What Is a Distribution Channel and What Components Does It Have?

The term “distribution channel” refers to the methods used by a company to deliver its products or services to the end consumer. It often involves a network of intermediary businesses such as manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. Selecting and monitoring distribution channels is a key component of managing supply chains.

What Is the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Distribution Channels?

Direct distribution channels are those that allow the manufacturer or service provider to deal directly with its end customer. For example, a company that manufactures clothes and sells them directly to its customers using an e-commerce platform would be utilizing a direct distribution channel. By contrast, if that same company were to rely on a network of wholesalers and retailers to sell its products, then it would be using an indirect distribution channel.

What Are the 3 Types of Distribution Channels?

The three types of distribution channels are wholesalers, retailers, and direct-to-consumer sales. Wholesalers are intermediary businesses that purchase bulk quantities of product from a manufacturer and then resell them to either retailers or—on some occasions—to the end consumers themselves. Retailers are generally the customers of the wholesalers and offer high-touch customer service to the end customers. Lastly, direct-to-consumer sales occur when the manufacturer sells directly to the end customer, such as when the sale is made directly through an e-commerce platform.

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  1. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau. "Liquor Laws and Regulations for Retail Dealers."

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