Containing channel conflict is a critical distribution strategy objective.
Given that their prospective profitability is the primary reason that retailers carry products, projected profit margins and sales volume are critical variables.
On a macro basis, a product's inherent market value drives customer demand, and largely determines aggregate sales volume and average pricing.
On a more micro basis (i.e. from the perspective of a specific retailer), sales are a share of the total sales volume in a specific trading area and margins are a direct function of prevailing (or lowest prices) offered by competing retailers.
Horizontal Channel Conflict
The implication is that the intensity of competition among retailers is a major driver of retailer support (or lack thereof). Invariably, as a product's distribution base is broadened (more accounts, stores, and types of stores are added), the likelihood of horizontal channel conflict increases between and among organizations operating in the same "layer" of the distribution network . As channel conflict increases, retailers' support for a product typically deceases. While channel conflict can rarely be eliminated completely, it is critical to contain it.
In most instances, horizontal channel conflict boils down to a question of economics: retailer profits are pushed below acceptable levels as a result of direct or indirect competitive behavior.
Horizontal channel conflict is increasingly common in real life as companies attempt to reach different customer segments by utilizing multiple distribution channels (including direct from the manufacturer).
More specifically, when multiple channels are employed and distribution intensity increases, three profit threats may confront a retailer: sales cannibalization, margin dilution, and customer diversion .
Consider the following cases:
(a) A mature, commodity-like product is sold through traditional grocery stores that attempt to maintain margins at roughly 30%. The manufacturer makes a comparable product available through warehouse club stores that price to operate at 5% margins by maintaining a very bare bones overhead structure.
(b) A broadly distributed, heavily advertised, branded product becomes a "traffic builder" for some retailers. That is, they price the product at or below cost to attract customers to their stores, hoping that the customers will also purchase other higher margin merchandise.
(c) A new, complex product is introduced though a select group of specialized retailers who compete on service (i.e. front-end consultive selling) not price. As volume builds for the product, similar versions are offered through "category killer" discounters who offer no in-store service and compete based on low prices.
(d) A manufacturer that has traditionally sold its products through full-service specialty retailers decides to have its sales force call directly on particularly large customers, bypassing the retailers, and decides to hop on the eCommerce bandwagon by selling to price-sensitive customers via the internet at "factory direct" prices.
In all of the above cases, there is the potential for significant channel conflict that is virtually certain to deteriorate retail economics (i.e. lower sales, prices, and profits), which may result in a reduction of aggregate support for the products.
In case (a), if the grocery stores don't narrow the price spread, they will have some of their sales cannibalized by the warehouse stores and will likely lose market share since the market is mature (i.e. slow / no growth).
In case (b), all retailers are likely to suffer margin dilution to the extent that they cut prices (either on an everyday or promotional basis) in an attempt to maintain their market shares.
In case (c), the full service stores may have some of their customers diverted to the discounters. That is, customers may take advantage of the pre-sales service, but then buy at the low price outlet. Or the stores may suffer margin dilution if they accede to customers who benchmark against "low-balling" competitors and negotiate lower prices This customer practice is commonly referred to as "best-balling", i.e. negotiating based on the lowest price found in the market. .
Case (d) is often the most controversial and emotional of the channel conflict situations since the manufacturer is involved. The specialty store may be hit by a profitability triple threat: some sales will cannibalized by the manufacturer's direct sales force; some full-service customers will be diverted to buy directly from the manufacturer; and margins will be diluted if prices are reduced to match the factory direct prices.
In both cases (c) and (d), the full service retailers are likely to become economically demotivated and shift their sales attention to more profitable products. As a result, the product may lose its primary sources of market support.
As the above cases illustrate, the dominating distribution objective, broadening market coverage (i.e. increasing customers' convenience), is somewhat at odds with the other two - enlisting product support and avoiding channel conflict. While a company may want broad rather than selective distribution, and may want to attack different market segments though multiple channels of distribution, the stark reality is that intensive hybrid distribution may, if not very carefully managed, result in horizontal channel conflict, deteriorating retail economics, and eventual loss of critical retail-level product support.
Mitigating Channel Conflict
While some level of channel conflict is inevitable, especially as products mature, it can be (and should be) mitigated.
In order to contain the level of conflict, companies need to embrace distribution philosophies that:
(1) Adopt a long-run perspective and refrain from opportunistic initiatives that may jeopardize established channel relationships for the sake of potentially transient short-term gains.
(2) Are respectful of system economics, recognizing that channel partners must earn fair financial returns to stay motivated.
(3) Stay open and flexible by avoiding restrictive long-run agreements (formal or "common law") that foreclose adaptation to changing markets.
On a more tactical level, companies should:
(1) Avoid premature distribution through margin-crunching channels despite their sometimes alluring potential to satisfy the "thrill of volume".
(2) Delineate clear rules for territorial coverage and "account ownership" so that competing channels (including the manufacturer direct channel) avoid fighting over the same set of customers.
(3) Build and maintain "fences" between competing channels to minimize leakage. For example, many companies market different brands to different intermediaries, or offer derivative models that are similar to, but different from their base products, that match the needs of different channels (e.g. newest full featured models to specialty stores, older "stripped down" models to discounters), and that "shelter" retailers from head-to-head price competition.