There is always a lot of talk in the software and hardware industries about distribution through the “Channel”. Generically that means selling through some type of a third party company, rather than selling directly to the end customer. But in reality the “Channel” includes a wide variety of disparate types of third party resellers. Today we’ll take a look at when to consider partnering with two of the main channel reseller types, VARs and Retailer–which also happen to be two of the most different.
What’s the difference between a VAR and a Retailer?
Let’s start with the retailer, as that’s a bit more obvious. With respect to software and hardware products, we’re talking about computer, specialty electronics and mass market stores, independents as well as regional and national chains. In the technology business retail is both a B2C channel and a B2B channel, especially when talking about serving the small and medium size business (SBM) market. While retailers may offer some “value-added” services such as extended warranties, tech support, delivery, installation, etc., the main purpose of a retail store is quite simple. The retailer serves primarily as a point-of-sale location, holding inventory and enabling end customers to have immediate access to products at favorable prices.
VARs (Value-Added-Resellers) are in many respects the polar opposite to retailers. The VAR channel is strictly B2B, and sells to both large enterprises and the SMB market. Usually there isn’t a retail storefront–if there is, it’s not a big part of the business. Expensive retail space is avoided to minimize their real estate costs, because walk-in traffic isn’t part of the business model. Unlike retailers who are product-focused, VARs are focused on selling their services, such as installation, configuration, integration, customization, etc, rather than turning over large quantities of products as retailer do. VARs aren’t interested in having a large “assortment” of products like retailers. This is a key point that channel newbie are prone to miss–at great cost to their company. While VARs do sell products, they are motivated to do so in only two instances:
1) Core products which are strategic because the VAR’s services are built around them
2) Easy to sell, demand-driven commodity products requested by their customer base
If you take just one thing away from this article, let it be this: VARs aren’t dying to sell most products. If your product doesn’t fit into one of the two categories above, you will be pushing on a rope trying to make progress in the VAR channel.
Is one of these channel types “better” than another?
One is not superior to the other. Each reseller type is better for different product types and circumstances. They both can be used quite profitably, but they serve different purposes. It’s important when designing a channel strategy to start with the end customer and work backwards. Where would the end customer like to buy? How important is price vs. services and support? What reseller type best meets the desires and needs of your target customer type(s)?
When you should use the VAR channel
While VARs aren’t product-oriented businesses, in aggregate they are still a very important channel for many product types. If you have a product which requires a high level of support, or “value-added” services such as expert installation, integration with other products, customization or 24/7 support, VARs can play a key role in your distribution strategy. If you have a popular commodity product, they can be useful (in aggregate) to greatly expand your distribution points. The VAR channel is highly segmented by vertical market, so if your product has a vertical orientation (networking, medical, insurance, etc.) this often creates an opportunity for VARs to be an important channel partner.
When you should use the Retail channel
Retailers are usually best for horizontal, commodity or mature products. They are effective at providing broad, immediate access to your products across a wide geographic area. Retailers typically are “inventory turn” oriented in their business models, and tend to work on thin margins. So if keeping your price point low is important while still using a third party channel, they are an excellent choice. Of course the fact that they provide instant access to your products during business hours can be a very important asset.
Can you use both VARs and Retailers for the same product?
Yes, but you must know what you are doing, or you may end up very sorry that you did. Since VARs and retailers bring very different things to your distribution, there is a strong chance of serious channel conflict if you use both reseller types for the same product. The biggest potential issue is degradation of your product street price, because while VARs typically work off high product margins and low turnover, retailers are the opposite. Retailers optimize their businesses for high inventory turnover, while accepting low product margins. The low margin strategy causes the street price of your product to fall for all channels distributing your product. If the street prices drop too low, the margins may drop too far to be interesting to VARs (even though they are focused primarily on their service offerings). Companies new to multi-channel distribution sometime make this problem even more acute by offering price discounts based on volume, which makes the situation even worse. A volume-based pricing strategy favors the higher volume retail channel and also incents even deeper street price drops, to create higher volumes and resulting better wholesale prices for the individual reseller. Multi-channel pricing is a complex area fraught with danger for the uninitiated–new players should solicit outside advice, and tread carefully.
VARs and retailers can be important, high volume distribution channels for many software and tech companies. They can each be primary distribution channels or combined with direct a sales approach and other channels to form highly efficient multi-channel distribution networks. More distribution is not always better, however. Companies need to know what they are doing when proceeding with a multi-channel strategy, or risk doing great damage to their sales and marketing efforts.
That’s a quick look at using VARs and retail in your distribution strategy. How do you see it? Post a comment to add to the discussion.