Let’s say you are like the two new small business owners who emailed us on the same day last week asking for information on the same topic: “Where can I find a distributor for my product?” The first answer is, like nearly every question we receive, “It depends.” Sometimes, it depends on the industry you are in. Other times, it depends on where you are located. And these days, it may depend on whether or not you even need a distributor.

Do you need a distributor?

In a general way, the term “distributor” is used to describe a wholesaler who specializes in collecting products of a certain type, say, books or specialty food or auto parts, that provide retailers with one point of contact for ordering a wide variety of products. There are nuances with each industry and type of product. Certain practices may also vary regionally. But, in general, the “wholesaler” is the manufacturer’s customer and “finding one” requires marketing skills on your part. It also requires that you demonstrate to the wholesalers that there is demand for the product by consumers. Before looking for a distributor, if this is your first product, you should start with researching the following two questions:

Do you need a “sales representative” rather than a “distributor”?

You may actually need someone to call on retailers or wholesalers to encourage them to carry your product. These people are called “sales representatives” and may work for several independent manufacturers (until you have enough volume of work to justify your own salesperson). They show samples or catalogs that describe items the companies they represent provide. Their responsibilities vary widely depending on the industry, but finding a sales rep is similar to finding a wholesaler, so following some of the suggestions below will work when seeking a sales representative as well as a distributor.

Should you try selling direct to consumers?

The internet has made selling direct to consumers a viable option in lots of different categories from fashion to industrial products. To do this, you will need to have ecommerce capabilities and the means to ship your product to consumers. Such “fulfillment” facets of selling products can also be handled by companies like Amazon, that are seeking to be a one-stop solution for small businesses that want to sell through their channel and also need ecommerce and fulfillment services.

If what you need is a wholesaler (or, perhaps, an independent sales rep), here are some places you should look, or activities you need to participate in:

Join an industry association

A lot of finding the right distributor will be in word-of-mouth recommendations. You can do all the research on the internet you want, but your best sources of information will be others in your industry and who they’re using. By joining an industry association, you’ll have access to other business owners who have been there before you, seen the good and the bad, and help guide you in the right direction.

Attend trade shows

The goal here is the same as joining an industry association, with one little caveat: being able to talk face-to-face with distributors. Trade shows bring in thousands of people within an industry, and on many sides of it. You’ll be able to build relationships with other business owners, distributors and customers all at the same time. Especially if you create an outstanding exhibit.

Check out the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors website

On the site, they’ll link you to other industry associations, as well as answer any questions you may have about distribution. Seeing as they represent distributors across the country, they may even be able to point you in the right direction of one.

Have you hired sales representatives or used wholesalers/distributors?

Share your experience, advice in the comments below.

(Feature image: Walmart via Flickr)

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