How to Start a Wholesale Distribution Business

Because every company relies on a pool of customers to sell its products and/or services to, the next logical step in the startup process involves defining exactly who will be included in that pool. Defining this group early on will allow you to develop business strategies, define your mission or answer the question "why am I in business?" and tailor your operations to meet the needs of your customer base.

As a wholesale distributor, your choice of customers includes:

Retail businesses: This includes establishments like grocery stores, independent retail stores, large department stores and power retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.

Retail distributors: This includes the distributors who sell to those retailers that you may find impenetrable on your own. For example, if you can't "get in" at a power retailer like Wal-Mart, you may be able to sell to one of its distributors.

Exporters: These are companies that collect United States-manufactured goods and ship them overseas.

Other wholesale distributors: It's always best to buy from the source, but that isn't always possible, due to exclusive contracts and issues like one-time needs (e.g., a distributor who needs 10 hard hats for a customer who is particular about buying one brand). For this reason, wholesale distributors often find themselves selling to other distributors.

The federal government: Uncle Sam is always looking for items that wholesale distributors sell. In fact, for wholesale distributors, selling to the government presents a great opportunity. For the most part, it's a matter of filling out the appropriate forms and getting on a "bid list." After you become an official government supplier, the various buying agencies will either fax or e-mail you requests for bids for materials needed by schools, various agencies, shipyards and other facilities.

For a small wholesale distributor, there are some great advantages to selling to the government, but the process can also be challenging in that such orders often require a lengthy bidding process before any contracts are awarded. Since opening her Redondo Beach, California, distributorship in 1994, Beth Shaw of YogaFit Inc. says she's made several successful sales to the government. Currently, the firm sells its exercise education programs and several styles of yoga mats to Army bases and other entities. Calling government sales "a good avenue" for wholesale distributors, Shaw says it's also one that's often overlooked, "especially by small businesses."

Finding a Profitable Niche
Once you have done the necessary research on your soon-to-be customers and competitors, you will have a much better idea what type of niche your new company can fill. Profitable niches in today's wholesale distribution arena include, but are certainly not limited to, reselling products that require some degree of education on the seller's part. Take, for example, the pencil analogy: Selling traditional pencils is easy, but selling mechanical pencils that require a specific technique-and a refill-takes smarts. In the latter situation, a wholesale distributor comes in extremely handy because they can educate the customer, who can then educate his own end user, about the benefits and operations of the mechanical pencil.

In other words, what matters is not so much what you sell, but how you sell it. There are profitable opportunities in every industry-from beauty supplies to hand tools, beverages to snack foods. No matter what they're selling, wholesale distributors are discovering ways to reaffirm their value to suppliers and customers by revealing the superior service they have to offer, as well as the cost-saving efficiencies created by those services. This mind-set opens up a wealth of opportunities to provide greater attention to the individual needs of customers, a chance to develop margin growth, and greater flexibility in product offerings and diversification of the business.

The whole trick, of course, is to find that niche and make it work for you. In wholesale distribution, a niche is a particular area where your company can most excel and prosper-be it selling tie-dyed T-shirts, roller bearings or sneakers. While some entrepreneurs may find their niche in a diverse area (for example, closeout goods purchased from manufacturers), others may wish to specialize (unique barstools that will be sold to regional bars and pubs).

On the other side of the coin, too much product and geographical specialization can hamper success. Take the barstool example. Let's say you were going to go with this idea but that in six months you'd already sold as many barstools as you could to the customer base within a 50-mile radius of your location. At that point, you would want to diversify your offerings, perhaps adding other bar-related items like dartboards, pool cues and other types of chairs.

The decision is yours: You can go into the wholesale distribution arena with a full menu of goods or a limited selection. Usually, that decision will be based on your finances, the amount of time you'll be able to devote to the business, and the resources available to you. Regardless of the choices you make, remember that market research provides critical information that enables a business to successfully go to market, and wholesale distributors should do as much as they can-on an ongoing basis. It is better to do simple research routinely than to shell out a lot of money once on a big research information project that may quickly become outdated.

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