Strong channel partners often wield what’s called channel power and are referred to as channel leaders, or channel captains. In the past, big manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Dell were often channel captains. But that is changing. More often today, big retailers like Walmart and Target are commanding more channel power. They have millions of customers and are bombarded with products wholesalers and manufacturers want them to sell. As a result, these retailers increasingly are able to call the shots. In other words, they get what they want.
Category killers are in a similar position. Consumers like you are gaining marketing channel power, too. Regardless of what one manufacturer produces or what a local retailer has available, you can use the Internet to find whatever product you want at the best price available and have it delivered when, where, and how you want.
A dispute among channel members is called a channel conflict. Channel conflicts are common. Part of the reason for this is that each channel member has its own goals, which are unlike those of any other channel member. The relationship among them is not unlike the relationship between you and your boss (assuming you have a job). Both of you want to serve your organization’s customers well. However, your goals are different. Your boss might want you to work on the weekend, but you might not want to because you need to study for a Monday test.
All channel members want to have low inventory levels but immediate access to more products. Who should bear the cost of holding the inventory? What if consumers don’t purchase the products? Can they be returned to other channel members, or is the organization in possession of the products responsible for disposing of them? Channel members try to spell out details such as these in their contracts.
No matter how “airtight” their contracts are, there will still be points of contention among channel members. Channel members are constantly asking their partners, “What have you done (or not done) for me lately?” Wholesalers and retailers frequently lament that the manufacturers they work with aren’t doing more to promote their products—for example, distributing coupons for them, running TV ads, and so forth—so they will move off store shelves more quickly. Meanwhile, manufacturers want to know why wholesalers aren’t selling their products faster and why retailers are placing them at the bottom of shelves where they are hard to see. Apple opened its own retail stores around the country, in part because it didn’t like how its products were being displayed and sold in other companies’ stores.
Channel conflicts can also occur when manufacturers sell their products online. When they do, wholesalers and retailers often feel like they are competing for the same customers when they shouldn’t have to. Likewise, manufacturers often feel slighted when retailers dedicate more shelf space to their own store brands. Store brands are products retailers produce themselves or pay manufacturers to produce for them. Dr. Thunder is Walmart’s store-brand equivalent of Dr. Pepper, for example. Because a retailer doesn’t have to promote its store brands to get them on its own shelves like a “regular” manufacturer would, store brands are often priced more cheaply. And some retailers sell their store brands to other retailers, creating competition for manufacturers.
Vertical versus Horizontal Conflict
The conflicts we’ve described so far are examples of vertical conflict. A vertical conflict is conflict that occurs between two different types of members in a channel—say, a manufacturer, an agent, a wholesaler, or a retailer. By contrast, a horizontal conflict is conflict that occurs between organizations of the same type—say, two manufacturers that each want a powerful wholesaler to carry only its products.
Horizontal conflict can be healthy because it’s competition driven. But it can create problems, too. In 2005, Walmart experienced a horizontal conflict among its landline telephone suppliers. The suppliers were in the middle of a price war and cutting the prices to all the retail stores they sold to. Walmart wasn’t selling any additional phones due to the price cuts. It was just selling them for less and making less of a profit on them (Hitt, et. al., 2009).
Channel leaders like Walmart usually have a great deal of say when it comes to how channel conflicts are handled, which is to say that they usually get what they want. But even the most powerful channel leaders strive for cooperation. A manufacturer with channel power still needs good retailers to sell its products; a retailer with channel power still needs good suppliers from which to buy products. One member of a channel can’t squeeze all the profits out of the other channel members and still hope to function well. Moreover, because each of the channel partners is responsible for promoting a product through its channel, to some extent they are all in the same boat. Each one of them has a vested interest in promoting the product, and the success or failure of any one of them can affect that of the others.
Flash back to Walmart and how it managed to solve the conflict among its telephone suppliers: Because the different brands of landline telephones were so similar, Walmart decided it could consolidate and use fewer suppliers. It then divided its phone products into market segments—inexpensive phones with basic functions, midpriced phones with more features, and high-priced phones with many features. The suppliers chosen were asked to provide products for one of the three segments. This gave Walmart’s customers the variety they sought. And because the suppliers selected were able to sell more phones and compete for different types of customers, they stopped undercutting each other’s prices (Hitt, et. al., 2009).
One type of horizontal conflict that is much more difficult to manage is dumping, or the practice of selling a large quantity of goods at a price too low to be economically justifiable in another country. Typically, dumping can be made possible by government subsidies that allow the company to compete on the basis of price against other international competitors who have to operate without government support, but dumping can also occur due to other factors.
One goal of dumping is to drive competitors out of a market, then raise the price. Chinese garlic producers were accused of this practice in the early 2000s, and when garlic prices soared due to problems in China, other countries’ producers were unable to ramp back up to cover the demand. U.S. catfish farmers have recently accused China of the same strategy in that market. While there are global economic agreements that prohibit dumping and specify penalties when it occurs, the process can take so long to right the situation that producers have already left the business.