Online channels have yet to sound the death knell for wholesalers, but they're certainly giving them a run for their money.
In a world where technology has been ubiquitous for decades, wholesalers have lagged far behind. They have been slow in adopting sales tools that streamline sales processes because the available solutions were complicated to use, expensive to implement, or both.
That's why in 2012, when a salesman schlepping a briefcase bulging with samples, printed catalogs, and paper order forms should be just a nostalgic memory, it is frequently the norm in wholesale retailing.
The future looks bright, though. With the advent of affordable yet comprehensive sales solutions on tablet computers, wholesalers have a chance to catch up technologically and build stronger relationships with retailers, giving them an edge over their competitors. By adapting to the latest trends, then staying firmly on top of them, wholesalers can catapult themselves into the 21st century.
For wholesalers, investments in strategic technologies are essentially investments in their customer base: the retailers. That's important, because when it comes to promoting a brand, nothing beats having it physically displayed on shelves, racks, and mannequins. That's a win-win for retailers, too, because when it comes to wearables such as clothing, shoes, fashion accessories, jewelry, and eyewear, for instance, nothing can replace the experience of shopping in a store, with the ability to touch and try on merchandise and the personal attention of a store clerk. Online applications that have attempted to emulate the shopping experience have, in most cases, proven unsuccessful.
Traditional shopping is an intrinsic part of Western consumer culture, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, in their never-ending quest to cut operational costs, some retailers will buy online directly from the manufacturer, bypassing the wholesaler—unless they have a compelling reason to do otherwise.
The message to wholesalers is that if you keep your retailers satisfied and show them your company is easy to work with, you increase your chances of them being willing to meet with you and carrying your items in their stores.
Clearly, wholesalers who want to stay relevant must embrace e-commerce as a sales channel and actively blog and participate in social networking communities. But in order to give retailers who are buying their brands an ordering and purchasing experience that is easy, fast, enjoyable, and accurate, they should also implement mobile sales force automation (MSFA). By radically cutting down on administrative tasks, MSFA gives sales reps more opportunity to interact positively and productively with their clients. Time normally spent on manual ordering and calling to check what's in stock, for example, can be invested in briefing clients on new products and industry trends—enabling reps to sell more.
The rise of the upscale rep
Acting as the intermediary between wholesalers and retailers, sales reps are elemental to the wholesaler's success. Today's tablet technology is revolutionizing the image and role of sales reps, and that is helping to enhance the relationship between wholesalers and their clients.
The introduction of cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) is making sales apps on portable devices like tablets more affordable and flexible. In many cases, wholesalers can compare the features and prices of various sales solutions on the market and try them out with no risk or commitment. Whatever the cost (ranging from free to $200 per user per month), wholesalers have nothing to lose and everything to gain by exploring possibilities that can improve the sales process, order accuracy, and their relationships with retailers. They simply need to invest some time to determine their needs and the best solution options for them.
Some iPad-based solutions enable sales reps to engage customers by presenting their products using industry-specific matrixes in an appealing and professional manner. Certain apps also let reps perform all critical sales processes on the spot, including checking real-time stock levels; taking and processing orders; and accessing up-to-the-minute information about clients, products, and market trends. This helps them make smart and informed decisions.
These capabilities, along with others such as visit management and location-based GPS, allow sales reps to make the most efficient use of their time, and increase sales. Another great feature of some mobile apps is picture taking of merchandise displays with automatic filing by category, which enables the branding or marketing managers to discern how their products (and their competitors') are being presented in stores. This widget is also useful for checking on each location's compliance with contractual terms regarding fixtures and display requirements.
The age of the cumbersome outdated catalog, paper orders, lost faxes, misplaced emails, and orders that cannot be fulfilled is coming to an end. Instead, store managers can see products in high definition and brilliant color in up-to-date e-catalogs, and place and sign orders on the spot. The sales reps always know exactly how many items in each color and size are in stock and can provide clients with timely and accurate recommendations.
Some sales apps can be combined with a collaborative B2B solution, empowering clients to place orders and interact with the wholesaler. Many direct ordering solutions failed in the past because field sales reps were feeling cut out and even threatened, and therefore were not advocating these solutions to their clients. The game-changer today is the sales reps' ability to approve, change, or reject these orders from their tablet computers using software that allows them to remain in control of the sales process.
These types of powerful sales solutions, combined with top-notch customer service, certainly play a significant role in keeping a business ahead of the curve.
In conclusion, wholesale operators planning for the future need to expand their sales channels to include e-commerce, while dramatically improving their relationships with their clients. They can do this by enabling easy interaction with retailers through direct ordering systems and by equipping their sales force with tools that eliminate time wasted on administrative tasks, allowing them to concentrate on promoting their brands, educating their clients, and serving them more efficiently. Those who don't jump on the bandwagon run the risk of being bypassed by competitors servicing their retailers with state-of-the-art solutions.
Ofer M. Yourvexel has been the CEO of WRNTY Ltd. since 2009. His management experience spans the global high-tech and retail sectors. For more information, visit www.wrnty.com.