At its core, a successful distribution business functions to add value to the customer, by flawlessly delivering the desired product or set of products at the right point in time, without quality defects and in the most cost-effective fashion. It is imperative that a successful distribution business operates with the costumers top-of-mind.
According to Jozef Opdeweegh, a Miami businessman with over 17 years of experience as CEO, Chairman and Board Member of private and public companies, there are 9 key tenets that make up an ideal distribution business model, that will not only emanate in the highest level of customer satisfaction but will also reward associates for their contribution to the success of the company and shareholders for their confidence in the company’s strategic plan.
1. Quality of operations
The breadth of the product range, fill rate, on-time delivery, competitive pricing, a multi-channel approach, along with extensive and up-to-date product information, are vital in creating an excellent customer experience. In order to satisfy these demands, the logistics operations behind the distribution business need to be of exceptional quality: qualified and well-trained personnel, real-time inventory visibility throughout the cycle, continual optimization of the process flow inside the distribution centers, a relentless focus on continuous improvement/six sigma/lean manufacturing and the automation of put away and pick processes are key focal points to differentiate the business from its competitors. Furthermore, the choice of like-minded transportation and last-mile delivery partners who equally view customer service as their core mission is key to the overall customer experience.
2 . Organic Growth
The key differentiating factor as well as the proof of concept, and one of the main drivers of shareholder wealth creation is the achievement of organic growth exceeding that of the relevant competition. Customer empathy, SKU (Stock Keeping Units) proliferation, relevant information and excellent knowledge about the product range, as well as the overall quality each aspect of the supply chain are indispensable characteristics that define a better distribution business. This type of distribution business will garner outsized customer loyalty and recurring sales.
3. Gross Margin Management
One of the most relevant success factors for a distribution business is the laser-focused management of gross margin, both in percent of sales and in terms of currency. In some instances, the sales force has not be provided with the analytical tools to allow them for the promotion of those products that generate the highest margin potential. This is of particular importance in a landscape with certain SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) that have identical characteristics and can serve the customer requirements with the same effectiveness, which is often the case. Additionally, in their quest for revenue, the sales force may be inclined to engage in price discounting, which harms the margin potential of the sale. Finally, a number of distribution organizations lack the sophistication to keep track of ancillary services that may have been offered to the customers or are reluctant to charge for those services, which further erodes the margin.
The key is to develop the business analytics and IT infrastructure that will allow for the identification and sale of the highest margin product in order to serve customer’s needs at the right price. This also allows for the appropriate charge to the customer for the ancillary services and the delivery method he or she enjoys.
4. Back Office Efficiency
Many distribution businesses maintain a back office that is inert, too large and costly. By virtue of their business model, large distribution businesses operate via geographically dispersed distribution centers. Lack of an integrated ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) solution and the absence of a standardized operating platform often create a detrimentally decentralized management structure. This leads to a large discrepancy in customer experience, in product and service offerings, and in the quality of operations across geographies. Furthermore, it may lead to an erosion of the leverage the distributor otherwise would be able to exercise on its suppliers. Lastly, it creates duplication in management and support structures – efforts and costs that can easily be avoided. In a successful distribution business, the operating system and the SKU management should be centrally managed, with the execution residing in the different regions, but based on a provided prescriptive playbook.
5. Network Optimization
A large number of distribution businesses operate from a suboptimal set of distribution centers. Often their network consists of a combination of too many facilities and less than optimally located distribution centers from a geographic perspective. This leads to duplicative inventory and inflated working capital requirements. A distribution business needs to constantly assess the size and location of its distribution facilities, so it can live up to its (next day) customer delivery promises from the fewest number of distribution centers. Case studies show huge savings can be generated in the area of network optimization, with a payback that often is less than 12 months, while at the same point in time enhancing the overall customer experience.
Since an online sales model does not require brick and mortar, and it does not require a direct sales force and the related costs, the bottom-line profitability of e-commerce sales vastly exceeds the profitability of the same SKU through another sales channel. A successful e-commerce sales effort requires a user-friendly web experience, impactful SEO efforts, detailed product information, breadth and availability of inventory, and on-time delivery of the entire order. It is also essential to have a simple return policy and a great back office to deal with product information, defects, and returns. Online sales may be boosted through the creation of an online user community consisting of customers who have purchased the product and can provide others with first-hand product information and applicability. Most often than not, e-commerce is one of the channels through which sales can be generated, in a multi-channel strategy that also includes direct sales and catalog sales. It is most certainly the most cost-effective and agile sales channel.
7. ERP-Solutions (Enterprise Resource Planning)
A distribution business may handle as many as 1 million distinct SKUs. In order to effectively run the distribution organization, it is imperative the company has real-time global inventory visibility to know exactly where different SKUs are stocked. This level of visibility allows for the avoidance of duplicative inventory, the calculation of appropriate inventory levels in the network through demand forecasting, and the minimization of risk of obsolescence. In many regards, the ERP solution is the engine of the distribution organization and is an invaluable part of network optimization. While implementation of a state-of-the-art ERP solution may be costly and time-consuming, with the cost amounting to as much as the equivalent of one year EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Appreciation & Amortization), it is hard to imagine a world-class distributor that does not possess such a tool.
8. Customer and Supplier Segmentation
In any distribution business, there are a number of items that are high volume. Conversely, there typically are a number of products that are only sold very occasionally and may have a negative impact on the profitability of the organization. In a similar vein, the average distribution business will spend time, effort and money maintaining relations with suppliers who provide low-demand products. It is important to continually reassess the contribution margin of low-selling items and to cut certain parts of the long tail, both in product and in supplier range.
9. Private Label
A distributor can significantly enhance its gross margins by focusing on the sale of private-label items, or items that have the desired functionality but that are being sourced through contract manufacturing and branded under a proprietary brand name. Certain competing suppliers may react negatively towards competing private-label products. Nevertheless, in the area of more generic SKUs, a distributor should aim at selling its own branded products and ideally, private labels will constitute 15% or more of overall revenue.