The distribution industry stands at a crossroads. For decades, the familiar model of manufacturers selling to distributors who then sell to customers has been foundational across industries. But with the emergence of digital tools that empower manufacturers to deal directly with consumers, this time-honored structure has faced deepening disruption.
While distribution remains essential, manufacturers can now own the customer relationship end-to-end with little input from intermediaries. Combined with the meteoric rise of ecommerce, this direct-to-consumer revolution threatens to make distributors obsolete. Amazon and other digital juggernauts are also building formidable logistics capabilities that threaten to undermine the function of traditional distributors.
To survive in this new paradigm, distributors must take a page out of the D2C playbook and undergo their own digital transformation. They need to reimagine their value proposition and business models for an increasingly tech-focused world. Distributors that fail to adapt risk losing relevance as manufacturers bypass them to sell directly to customers online. The choice for the distribution industry is clear: digitize or die.
The threatening dawn of D2C
D2C represents an existential threat to the traditional distribution model. Manufacturers are rapidly exploring innovative sales channels that feed directly to end users, taking cues from disruptive startups like Dollar Shave Club and Casper. These digital native D2C brands have shown that enormous success can be achieved when control over pricing, customer relationships, and end-to-end experiences is kept in-house.
For manufacturers, D2C delivers a gold mine of customer data to tailor products and personalize engagement. Combined with the explosive rise of ecommerce, producers now have direct access to vast pools of customers without the need for distributor middlemen. This trend is unlikely to peter out; between 2019 and 2022, customer-direct purchases increased by almost a third, with sustained growth forecasted through the middle of the decade and beyond.
As D2C continues to gain momentum, distributors are likely to find once-reliable clients starting to question indirect sales. This is particularly true of manufacturers who’ve sunk millions of dollars into their own digital capabilities, and, as a result, are rapidly seeking higher margins by eliminating intermediary markups.
A narrow window of opportunity
Despite this, distribution remains essential across the majority of modern industries. Distributors provide vital value through their technical expertise, expansive product selection, and customer service. But much of this value can now be replicated or replaced through technology. Even the least future-facing manufacturers are wondering whether they need third-party distributors to the extent they once did — thanks, not least, to the sudden emergence of eye-catching alternatives.
Powerful ecommerce enterprises, like Amazon and Alibaba, have surged into the packing and delivery spaces, offering services once fulfilled solely by distribution specialists. Their expertise in digital shopping and advances in logistics allow cost-effective shipping of products — including large and bulky items — neutralizing an advantage established distribution players previously enjoyed. These digital disruptors are also beginning to match distributors in terms of technical proficiency, leveraging artificial intelligence, algorithms, and data analytics to close the knowledge gap.
For traditional distribution companies, the window of opportunity to secure a sustainable future is closing fast. But it isn’t too late for these tried-and-true providers to cement themselves as essential cogs in the ecommerce machine. To remain relevant in a rapidly digitizing world, they must recognize the need for reform, casting aside antiquated models to deliver the experiences that modern-day manufacturers — and their customers — want.
An investment worth making
Moving forward, distribution leaders must strive to deliver seamless omnichannel journeys formulated to meet fast-evolving customer expectations. Siloed channels and fractured data severely degrade these experiences, so the focus should be on unified commerce solutions spanning web, mobile, and marketplaces.
Investing in flexible, customizable B2B ecommerce platforms purpose-built for the distribution space provides a strong foundation for unified commerce, empowering distributors to blend digital efficiency with high-value account management and the other areas in which they excel.
To fortify fulfillment and logistics as customer demands escalate, distributors must also optimize supply chain operations for speed, transparency, and flexibility. They can achieve these operational improvements by digitizing warehouse management, selectively applying automation, exploring innovative last-mile delivery partnerships, and closely monitoring supplier relationships. While superior fulfillment and logistics remains a distributor stronghold, digital disruptors are advancing quickly, so established disruption players must urgently double down on this advantage before it evaporates entirely.
In both the short term and the long term, those that modernize their supply chains will gain a powerful competitive edge. However, to truly thrive in the evolving distribution landscape, distributors must expand their value proposition far beyond just moving products.
Doing so requires a realization that they shouldn’t be competing with manufacturers, but rather complementing their operations. This means providing services, insights, and specialist know-how that make them the expert distributor, an indispensable partner. With knowledge and relationships baked deeply into the customer experience, manufacturers will be less incentivized to cut distributors from the chain — especially in economically uncertain times when increasing value is imperative.
Ready to thrive
There’s no doubt that D2C is here to stay, but manufacturers will continue to seek the services of digitally enabled distributors who provide value far beyond basic order fulfillment. That’s why, to remain competitive, distribution players must augment their value proposition by evolving into trusted advisors and strategic partners.
Getting this right relies on comprehensive digital transformation encompassing ecommerce, supply chain, and service delivery operations. Distributors that fail to adapt their business models and stubbornly cling to antiquated, unsophisticated approaches will inevitably fail.
Adapting to this new distribution reality is no small task. But it has become necessary for survival — and with the right tools and technology, it can be a remarkably painless process. With commitment to change, investment in digitization, and a tireless customer focus, distributors can reinvent themselves as next-generation enterprises ready to thrive in all market conditions — now, and in the future.
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