Key distribution issues in emerging markets

Channel strategy – companies must map out a clear channel strategy and identify which channel the selected distributor will service. A poorly defined channel strategy can severely damage any distributor roll-out. It is critical that companies understand how channels function and operate. One size does not fit all.

Selection criteria – companies need to understand the key components of a successful distribution partnership. Many distributors fail because critical components of the selection criteria are overlooked. The selection criteria will likely include important components such as capital, infrastructure, warehousing, transportation and required organizational structure.

Management – do we have management buy-in and is the distributor fitting in with our strategic goals? A distributor roll-out requires patience and a continuous improvement mindset. Small incremental changes can sometimes go a long way.

Territory – is the territory well defined and does the distributor have the ability to service the territory? Companies must build distributor capability and schedule joined training sessions. Companies must also ensure they have detailed territory maps and a clear understanding of the outlet density.

Outlet base – are traditional and non-traditional channels well defined? in most emerging market, determining the outlet base can be a challenging undertaking. Companies need to understand both the existing and potential outlet base. A well defined every dealer survey (EDS) is a key component of any successful distributor roll-out.

Customer service frequency – Are they over or under servicing their customers? Companies must have a clear understanding of the service frequency that both the distributor and the customers require.

Role definition – do we have a clear understanding what the company and the distributor are responsible for? What does the organizational structure look like and how will the company support the distributor? Does each profile (e.g. salesperson) have a clear understanding of his or her role?

Account development – account development is a critical component of any distributor operation. Not all accounts are equal. In most cases companies need to prioritize and focus their attention on high value or strategic customers. Companies also need to determine how they will split the account development activities between the company and the distributor.

Cost to serve – the true cost to serve is sometimes underestimated and companies must have a clear understanding of the cost to serve for both the distributor and the company. In many cases in emerging markets, financial cost centers provide limited data and financial modeling is essential to determine the true cost to serve . Many distributors also fail because the remuneration is set too low and not adjusted for inflation on a periodic basis.

Transportation – is the distributor making use of low cost distribution? For example pushcarts or motorbikes. Is the vehicle or cart load configuration inline with our requirements?

Warehouse – the warehouse function is sometimes overlooked when a company implements a new route-to-market system. Companies need to understand how the new system will impact the warehouse function and what changes need to take place.

Key Performance Indicators – focus on the key performance drivers of your business and don’t overextend yourself. Sometimes less is more. Include key performance measurements in your business planning process and evaluate on a yearly basis whether you are using these measurements to track and improve your business. There is no point it tracking something just for the sake of tracking.

Flow– are the processes and systems well defined and do we have a clear understanding of the product, cash and information flow? Are processes and systems standardized?  Always aim to eliminate non-value adding activities where possible. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) simplify your business procedures and help to ensure the same quality in all operations. Emerging market operations often lack critical skills and don’t make any assumptions what people can and can not do.

Complexity – can the distributor handle the level of complexity in the business? In many cases distributors that distribute all SKUs to all channels fail. Always aim to reduce the complexity in the business.

Collaboration – how will the distributor share information with the company? Too often critical information is only available at distrbutor level and not shared with the company. What role can technology play in all of this?

Take note of the evolution – too often supply chains in emerging markets just evolve without any strategic intend. Modern trade and retailing are expanding and middle class consumers shopping patterns are changing. How will these changes in the market affect your business and are you taking the necessary steps to adapt to these changes?


  1. Good article, might want to add that the leagal enviorment , distribution contracts and implied agreements should be reviewed by local counsel in many countries. Local competitive pricing structure and product comparative advantage .

  2. Great working list ! Mr. Lewis’s coment is critical. Local legal enviroment and its conventions in law and practice , I learned the hard way many years ago in Carribean. Beyond review by local counsel accesing US Dept of Trade and ExPat chamber are also vital resources. I understadn the concept but am not familar with the EDS (Every Dealer Survey) as a standardized format. I would be interested in more details about this format and how wide spread ( Asia/ Mid East/ C & E Europe and possible relaible sources or inputs.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I have seen various formats of the Every Dealer Survey (EDS). Companies standardize the format but it changes from company to company. Most managers will tell you don’t leave the questionnaire design to research companies.

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