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?"

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

Understanding Distribution Channels

A distribution channel is the 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 amount 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.

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 good 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.

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Distribution Channel

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.

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.

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, they should not conflict with one another. Companies should strategize so one channel doesn't overpower the other.