You might be tempted to think middlemen, or intermediaries, are bad. If you can cut them out of the deal—a process marketing professionals call disintermediation—products can be sold more cheaply, can’t they? Large retailers, including Target and Walmart, sometimes bypass middlemen. Instead, they buy their products directly from manufacturers and then store and distribute them to their own retail outlets. Walmart is increasingly doing so and even purchasing produce directly from farmers around the word. 1 However, sometimes cutting out the middleman is desirable but not always. A wholesaler with buying power and excellent warehousing capabilities might be able to purchase, store, and deliver a product to a seller more cheaply than its producer could acting alone. Likewise, hiring a distributor will cost a producer money. But if the distributor can help the producer sell greater quantities of a product, it can increase the producer’s profits. Moreover, when you cut out the middlemen you work with, you have to perform the functions they once did. Maybe it’s storing the product or dealing with hundreds of retailers. More than one producer has ditched its intermediaries only to rehire them later because of the hassles involved.
The trend today is toward disintermediation. The Internet has facilitated a certain amount of disintermediation by making it easier for consumers and businesses to contact one another without going through any middlemen. The Internet has also made it easier for buyers to shop for the lowest prices on products. Today, most people book trips online without going through travel agents. People also shop for homes online rather than using real estate agents. To remain in business, resellers need to find new ways to add value to products.
However, for some products, disintermediation via the Internet doesn’t work so well. Insurance is an example. You can buy it online directly from companies, but many people want to buy through an agent they can talk to for advice.
Sometimes it’s simply impossible to cut out middlemen. Would the Coca-Cola Company want to take the time and trouble to personally sell you an individual can of Coke? No. Coke is no more capable of selling individual Cokes to people than Santa is capable of delivering toys to children around the globe. Even Dell, which initially made its mark by selling computers straight to users, now sells its products through retailers such as Best Buy as well. Dell found that to compete effectively, its products needed to be placed in stores alongside Hewlett-Packard, Acer, and other computer brands. 2