The ‘Distribution vs. Direct’ Debate

To buy products direct from the manufacturer or go through a distributor… What’s better for the end user? What’s better for you?

Tim Albright

On the latest episode of AVWeek, a discussion developed about what situation is better; distribution or direct from the manufacturer.

This is a question for integrators to consider as they develop and expand their product offerings. Do you sign up with a new company for just this one product, or go to your distributor for that one-off item? Is it better for the end user if you have a direct purchasing relationship with the organization who made the components or are they just looking for the cheapest bottom line?

Straight from the Horse’s…

There are a number of integrators, large and small, who believe if you do not get your product direct from the manufacturer you are somehow on a lower level than others. Almost as if there is a caste system in the world of AV.

“Oh, you don’t buy direct? Well, you must not be as important as I.”

On the same side of that argument is the thought that distribution adds a level of cost and therefore you can not get products any less expensive than directly from the manufacturer.

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The people I know at manufacturers don’t really treat anyone different based on their relationship with the company. Yes, if you are a jerk you will probably not get as good of service as someone who’s a bit more pleasant to deal with. However, the idea that you are a second-class AV citizen because of your purchasing arrangement is unfounded from what I have experienced, and I have had to deal with companies from both sides.

As far as getting it cheaper from the manufacturer, this obviously has some merit. If there are three people involved in a transaction, every one of them will want to make some money on it. Some manufacturers may have different pricing for distributors versus integrators. If so, going through a distributor is a wash. If not, then I’d go direct if I could.

Service is the Key

Regardless of where you get the product, the ultimate question is “does the company service you and the end user?”

If you have ever had the experience of going through a distributors technical support, I empathize with you. I am certain there are some distributors out there who have wonderful tech support teams. There are also some who do not. Really do not. In those cases it is up to the manufacturer to maintain the level of technical support all the way through the process. This is where certain certifications and classes come into play. The companies want to make certain you have the training and aren’t just some trunk slammer hoping to pop in a $100,000 Cisco telepresence system.

Really it comes down to what is the best situation for you as an integrator. Do you have the jobs or capital to make your minimums every year or are you just starting out and could use some lenience in the area of “total sales”? That is where a distributor can help. There are no minimums, in most cases. Also, can you even get a direct purchasing agreement? There are a number of displays and more CE products that you are required to go through distribution.

Wherever you find yourself, make certain you have as good of a relationship as possible with the manufacturer and the distributor. That way, if one is not available, or unresponsive, you can always go to the other for help.