Evolution of Channels of Distribution
As consumers, we take for granted that when we go to a supermarket the shelves will be filled with the products we want; when we are thirsty there will be a Coke machine or bar around the corner, and we count on being able to get online and find any product available for purchase and quick delivery. Of course, if we give it some thought, we realize that this magic is not a given and that hundreds of thousands of people plan, organize, and labor long hours to make this convenience available. It has not always been this way, and it is still not this way in many other parts of the world.
Looking back over time, the channel structure in primitive culture was virtually nonexistent. The family or tribal group was almost entirely self-sufficient. The group was composed of individuals who were both communal producers and consumers of whatever goods and services could be made available. As economies evolved, people began to specialize in some aspect of economic activity. They engaged in farming, hunting, or fishing, or some other basic craft. Eventually this specialized skill produced excess products, which they exchanged or traded for needed goods that had been produced by others. This exchange process or barter marked the beginning of formal channels of distribution. These early channels involved a series of exchanges between two parties who were producers of one product and consumers of the other.
With the growth of specialization, particularly industrial specialization, and with improvements in methods of transportation and communication, channels of distribution have become longer and more complex. Thus, corn grown in Illinois may be processed into corn chips in West Texas, which are then distributed throughout the United States. Or, turkeys raised in Virginia are sent to New York so that they can be shipped to supermarkets in Virginia. Channels do not always make sense.
The channel mechanism also operates for service products. In the case of medical care, the channel mechanism may consist of a local physician, specialists, hospitals, ambulances, laboratories, insurance companies, physical therapists, home care professionals, and so on. All of these individuals are interdependent and could not operate successfully without the cooperation and capabilities of all the others.
Based on this relationship, we define a channel of distribution, also called a marketing channel, as sets of interdependent organizations involved in the process of making a product or service available for use or consumption, as well as providing a payment mechanism for the provider.
This definition implies several important characteristics of the channel.
First, the channel consists of organizations, some under the control of the producer and some outside the producer’s control. Yet all must be recognized, selected, and integrated into an efficient channel arrangement.
Second, the channel management process is continuous and requires continuous monitoring and reappraisal. The channel operates twenty-four hours a day and exists in an environment where change is the norm.
Finally, channels should have certain distribution objectives guiding their activities. The structure and management of the marketing channel is thus, in part, a function of a firm’s distribution objective. It’s also a part of the marketing objectives, especially the need to make an acceptable profit. Channels usually represent the largest costs in marketing a product.