When is a catalogue distributor not a catalogue distributor?

Farnells marketing director, Kevin Yapp, looks at the role of catalogues and highlights the customer benefits of integrating catalogues in a multi-channel model including the web, field sales teams, call centres and other procurement resources

As recently as the 1990s it was relatively easy for industry analysts to segment electronic component distributors into neat categories such as broadline, specialist and catalogue. Now, thanks both to the changing needs of an increasingly fragmented market and the ever-increasing importance of the online world, such broad generalisations are no longer applicable. In particular, the term catalogue distributor is a misnomer as companies associated with traditional catalogue-style distribution expand their channels of communication to benefit their customers.

Online distribution

One of the most dramatic changes to the distribution world in the last twenty years has been the emergence of the Internet as a key channel for a customer to deal with a distributor. And it is the so-called catalogue distributors that have been at the forefront of using online resources to enhance their proposition and deliver real customer benefits.

Farnells own experience with the web provides a good illustration of just how important this channel to market has become. In the last quarter of 2007, for example, the company saw a 42 per cent increase in online sales in Europe and now receives, on average, a web order every ten seconds.

But while providing an efficient mechanism for placing orders is vital (Farnells own ordering process takes the user to final order confirmation in just five steps) to truly benefit the customer, a distributors online presence needs to be about much more than simplifying the purchasing process. In particular, time and resource-pressured engineers and purchasers want their distributors to provide a variety of flexible resources that can make their lives easier at all stages of the design and manufacturing process, from initial component selection through to production. As well as rapid component search and comparison facilities and simplified access to detailed online technical libraries, for example, customers need information on how legislative issues such as WEEE, RoHS and EuP affect their products. A distributor website that provides access to such information in an easy-to-understand format provides significant benefits to engineer and purchaser alike.

Role of the catalogue

While the Internet may be changing the face of distribution this doesnt mean that an online presence has become a replacement for the traditional catalogue. Catalogues still fulfil an important role, with some customers even citing an emotional attachment to a tool they first discovered as students or in their first job. The fact is that, for many customers, a distributors catalogue and website are used together to fulfil different needs.

As a company with both a long history in catalogue distribution (the most recent catalogue covers over 150,000 products from over 600 different manufacturers), plus a high profile online presence, Farnell is acutely aware of how important an effective combination of catalogue and web can be. To ensure this multi-channel approach continues to deliver optimum benefits to the broadest possible customer base, the company conducts regular research into the evolving use of these printed and digital resources.

The most recent research supports the fact that the catalogue and the web are used to some degree by all customer types, and that the degree of use depends on a number of factors, including whether the customer is making a first time or repeat purchase. Many engineers and purchasers, for example, prefer to flick through a catalogue to identify any unfamiliar components for the first time and will then go onto the website for more information including datasheets and pricing. When it comes to repeat purchasing, however, speed and simplicity of ordering is more likely to make the website the first port of call.

Multi-channel distribution

What is clear is that in todays market there is no single one size fits all solution to meeting the varying needs of an increasingly fragmented and time/resource pressured customer base. Farnell has long recognised this, which is why the company has developed a true multi-channel distribution model designed to deliver maximum benefits to the broadest variety of customers including designers, maintenance engineers and buyers. Within such a model the catalogue and web become just two channels for reaching the customer among a myriad of other resources that also include local sales offices, telephone hotlines, access to technical engineering support by e-mail, web or phone and the creation/delivery of regular technical literature and technology news alerts accurately matched to the specific needs of individual customers.

Naturally, whether customers make use of one, some or all of the possible channels, it is essential the preferred method of customer/distributor communication is backed by key deliverables. The ideal multi-channel model should facilitate access to the broadest possible range of the latest component technologies and, as is the case with Farnell, should not place a minimum limit on order sizes. Pricing should be competitive and flexible and offer price breaks at higher quantities to provide real value from initial design through to production. In addition, whether its a single component or a comprehensive BoM, having identified the right technology for the job, the customer has the right to expect a rapid, efficient and reliable ordering process.

The term catalogue distributor is becoming a misnomer as distributors embrace a multi-channel model to address a broad customer base with a diverse variety of requirements. Research shows that a distributors catalogue and online presence have a symbiotic relationship: one does not simply replace the other. Catalogues, for example, are often used to source, compare, contrast and to give context, while the web is used to fine tune and drill down for more specific information and to place the order itself. Finally, the catalogue and the web are just two of the many potential channels that are required to deliver real benefits to the widest possible variety of customers.