Selling software at retail at one point in time was the “Holy Grail” for consumer, home office and small office software suppliers. That’s where the volume was. Everything that a company did starting up was intended to build enough volume to get into a distributor, so they could then pursue shelf space at the major retailers of software.
But oh, how times have changed. The advent of the Internet and wide availability of broadband has made nearly every consumer and small business application downloadable with the click of a mouse, and a major credit card. In the meantime, major sellers of software have dropped like flies (CompUSA, Computer City) or have de-emphasized software in their retail assortment.
PROFITABLE retail distribution of software, which has been a major challenge for software companies dating back more than 20 years, has gotten tougher every year, as the retail distribution pipe shrinks. And even twenty years ago, it was already very tough, for small software companies, in particular. I’ve even seen a credible authority recently predict that distribution of software through retail outlets will CEASE TO EXIST within five years.
IS RETAIL SOFTWARE DISTRIBUTION DEAD?
So should you forget about retail as a potential distribution channel for your consumer or SMB software application?
First of all, it’s my opinion that the near term extinction of retail software distribution is greatly exaggerated. While it has been in decline for a very long time, and will continue to decline, it still has some life left. There is still quite a bit of software sold at retail. There are still some reasons that people buy at retail. And last but not least, nearly every thing in high technology takes more time to “go away” than the pundits predict. People just don’t change their habits that quickly, no matter the technological reasons for that change to occur. Among several reasons people still buy at retail:
WHY PEOPLE STILL BUY SOFTWARE AT RETAIL
Impulse – They are in a store looking for something else, and happen upon a product that looks neat or useful. In this respect, software benefits from this “in-store effect”, much like any other retail product.
Credibility – Buying software, or any other item over the Internet from some unknown company, is scary for many people. Just the fact that it’s in a “touchable” package, and is “blessed” by the retailer stocking it, gives comfort to many, especially the mainstream and late adopter types.
Physical Media – Most folks want a backup copy of the application which they’ve put out good money for. Sure, you can burn a backup CD on your own. But to some folks that’s technologically challenging–and seems like a lot of work to others.
Internet Phobia – There still are folks, more than want to admit it, that just aren’t comfortable with the Internet, particularly the ecommerce aspects.
WHEN SHOULD A SOFTWARE VENDOR CONSIDER RETAIL DISTRIBUTION?
So in some cases, software vendors should still give consideration to packaging their products for retail distribution. What are the elements which may make retail still a viable distribution channel for a particular product line?
* A VERY hot product – In one of these rare instances where you’ve hit a product home run, it’s beneficial to get your product in as many channels as possible. When you have a product “selling like hotcakes”, retail can be ideal to help you maximize your return on the high demand. Make sure that you’ve proven that it’s a brisk seller via other marketing and distribution methods BEFORE you enter the retail channel, however.
* A well-known brand – Almost nothing helps product sell through retail as much as a well-established brand. There is almost never anyone to “sell” your product in a retail store. You are relying almost soles on the box copy to be your salesman. In this situation, the credibility of a strong brand is often the difference between a customer purchasing, and leaving the box on the shelf.
* A related portfolio of products that can be sold to the same customer. It is very hard to make money on a single product being sold through retail channels. The upfront marketing programs and thin margins make breakeven a huge challenge for a single product company. However, if you can profit indirectly even if you just break even on the actual retail sale, by building your customer list and selling related products to them–that’s a huge advantage.
* Add-on services to sell – Much like having a large portfolio of products, a single product vendor can also have a greater chance at profitability if the “retail product” is a front-end to other revenue generating services. Maybe the product leads to subscriptions to an add-on web-based service, or there are custom forms or other tangible supplies that can be sold to users of the software application.
These are a few of the circumstances where I would actually encourage an ISV to consider retail distribution. I want to caution that in the best of circumstances, this channel isn’t for the “faint of heart”. Startup costs are high, margins are generally lower than other forms of software distribution, and there are substantial inventory issues and risks. There’s an old saying in the software business about retail distribution–“the only people who make money at it are the freight companies who ship the inventory back and forth among vendors, distributors and retailers”. In short, it’s a great place to lose money–if you aren’t careful. I highly recommend that you retain an expert to help you through the process, if you are new to retail and decide that it may be appropriate for your products.
There are many more angles to cover on this topic. To name a few, the need for a relationship with a major distributor of software to retailers, what marketing programs to use, the importance of a retail package–and much more. As important as they are, we’ll have to leave the detailed mechanics of getting your software into retail distribution (and making a profit!) for a later article.
So don’t dismiss retail distribution of your software applications completely, even in this age of Internet instant gratification. But make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons, with a solid plan for how it will benefit your company. If your company is entering retail for the first time, consider retaining an expert to reduce your risk of failure.
I’d enjoy hearing your own experiences with retail distribution, past and present, as well as your attitude about this channel today. Post a comment so we can all learn from your experience.