Wholesale Trade | Encyclopedia.com (2023)

Wholesaling refers to all of the transactions in which products are bought for resale, for the making of other products, or for general business operations. A wholesaler is the individual or organization that facilitates these wholesaling activities by buying products and reselling them to yet another reseller, government agency, or an institutional user. In 2005 there were approximately 620,000 wholesaling companies in the United States, with more than half of all products sold in the country passing through these wholesaling firms. Approximately 400,000 independent firms handled close to $2 trillion worth of merchandise and employed close to 6 million workers.

Wholesaling is an important aspect of a company's marketing-channel strategy because it essentially involves the planning associated with industrial customers that need to distribute their products to manufacturers, retailers, government agencies, schools, hospitals, and other wholesalers.


Because wholesalers are in the business of buying in large quantities and delivering to customers in smaller amounts, they are able to perform physical distribution activities more effectively, including materials handling, warehousing, and inventory management. They often offer quick and frequent pickup and deliveries, as needed, which allows both the producers of the goods and wholesale customers to avoid the risks associated with holding large inventories.

Wholesalers support retailers by assisting them in their overall integrated market planning through pricing and promotion assistance. In addition, because they enter into sales contracts with a producer and because they can sell different amounts of the product to retailers, wholesalers serve as an extension of the producer's workforce. They often provide financial assistance and extend credit as needed.

Keeping producers up to date on market conditions is a critical component of wholesalers' services. Their assessment and analysis of changing market conditions are important for producers who are concentrating on market development and strategies for growth.

Because of their position in the marketing channel, wholesalers have closer contact with retail customers than do producers. Wholesalers can spread their sales costs over more products than can most producers, which results in lower costs per product. Because of this, many producers shift their financing and distribution activities to wholesalers. Because they are often specialists in understanding market conditions and experts at negotiating final purchases, wholesalers are a critical component in retail distribution strategies.

The distinction between services performed by wholesalers and those provided by other businesses has changed over the years. Retailers are discovering that they may be able to deal directly with producers and they may also be able to perform wholesalers' functions themselves. Because of the increased use of computers, retailers have been able to expedite ordering, delivering, and handling of goods more effectively than in the past. Nevertheless, not all functions of wholesalers can be eliminated; these

functions still have to be performed by some member of the marketing channelproducer, retailer, or wholesalerbecause they are vital components of supply-chain management.


There are three basic categories of wholesalers: merchant wholesalers; agents, brokers, and commission merchants; and manufacturers' sales branches and offices.

Merchant Wholesalers

Merchant wholesalers are independent wholesalers that take title to the products they sell. This type of wholesaling accounts for a large percent of all wholesale establishments in the United States. Since merchant wholesalers take title to the products that they resell, their earnings are obtained through markup of these goods. Merchant wholesalers are often called distributors and can be categorized as either full-service or limited-function wholesalers (see Figure 1).

Full-service wholesalers often provide a wide range of services to the customers for which they purchase products. Customers rely on them for product availability, suitable assortments, breaking of large quantities into smaller ones, financial assistance, and technical advice and service. Although full-service wholesalers often earn higher gross margins than other wholesalers, their operating expenses are also higher because they perform a wide range of functions.

There are four types of full-service wholesalers:

  1. General-merchandise wholesalers
  2. Limited-line wholesalers
  3. Specialty-merchandise wholesalers
  4. Rack jobbers

General-merchandise wholesalers carry an extensive line of products and provide a wide variety of services. Although these wholesalers may carry many different product lines, they do not carry an extensive variety within them. Most general-merchandise wholesalers deal in such products as drugs, nonperishable foods, cosmetics, detergents, and tobacco.

Limited-line wholesalers carry only a few product lines, such as groceries, lighting fixtures, or oil-well drilling equipment, but offer an extensive assortment of products within those lines. They also offer fewer marketing services than general-merchandise wholesalers because they specialize in just a few functions that are associated with the product lines they carry. Limited-line wholesalers often take title to the products, but they may not deliver

merchandise, grant credit, provide essential marketing information, or store inventory. This results in smaller profit margins as compared to general-merchandise wholesalers.

The decision as to whether a company should use a limited-line wholesaler depends on the structure of the marketing channel and the need to manage the supply chain in order to obtain a competitive advantage, that is, do a "good" job so that competitors do not "steal" the business. Although the number of limited-line wholesalers is relatively small, they are important in the distribution of such products as specialty foods, perishable items, construction materials, and coal.

Specialty-line wholesalers carry the most narrow product assortment, usually consisting of a single product line or part of one. Because specialty-line wholesalers are product experts, they can offer extensive sales and product support.

Rack jobbers, sometimes considered a subcategory of specialty-line wholesalers, concentrate on retail stores. They set up and maintain displays and stock them with goods that are sold on consignment. Retailers depend on rack jobbers for the provision of health and beauty aids, hosiery, books, greeting cards, and magazines.

The five types of limited-function wholesalers are truck jobbers, drop shippers, cash-and-carry wholesalers, catalog wholesalers, and wholesale clubs. Producers of fast-moving goods, especially those that are perishable and need frequent replenishment, often use truck jobbers because they deliver only within a particular geographic region in order to maintain product freshness. Truck jobbers are often chosen as the wholesaling method because they offer quick and frequent delivery, which is especially crucial for such items as bakery goods, meats, and dairy products.

Drop shippers arrange for shipments directly from the factory to the customer; although they do not physically handle the product, they do take title and responsibility for all the risks associated with the transport of goods. In addition, they offer the necessary sales support for the products they distribute. They operate in a wide variety of industries, including chemicals, industrial packaging, lumber, petroleum, and heating products.

Cash-and-carry wholesalers are intermediaries whose customers are usually small businesses that pay cash and have to arrange the delivery of these products themselves. Cash-and-carry wholesalers usually carry a limited line of products that have a high turnover, such as groceries, building materials, and electrical or office supplies. They do not deliver the products they sell, nor do they extend credit, but they are a vital intermediary for those small businesses that would be unprofitable for larger wholesalers to service.

Catalog wholesalers are an alternative to cash-and-carry wholesalers that serve both major population centers and remote locations. Prepayment for goods is required, and delivery is arranged through delivery services such as UPS and FedEx. A wide range of competitively priced products are offered, such as office furniture and equipment, packaging materials, and shelf and storage systems.

Wholesale clubs are organizations that offer customers a fee-based membership that entitles them to make purchases at below-retail prices. This particular concept is a growing phenomenon in the United States because of the success of such wholesale clubs as Costco and Sam's Club.

Agents, Brokers, and Commission Merchants

The second category of wholesalers is agents and brokers (see Figure 1). Agents represent either buyers or sellers on a permanent basis, whereas brokers are middlemen that buyers or sellers employ temporarily. Both agents and brokers perform fewer functions than limited-service wholesalers but they are usually more specific in their product selection, and thus can provide valuable sales expertise. Using agents and brokers allows companies to benefit from the expertise of a trained sales force, which results in a decrease in personal selling costs. Often called functional middlemen, agents and brokers perform a limited number of services in exchange for a commission that is based on the selling price.

One type of agent is called a manufacturer's agent; this type accounts for half of all agent wholesalers. They are independent middlemen who represent more than one seller and offer complete product lines. A manufacturer's agent is restricted to a particular territory and sells and takes orders year-round. There is a contractual agreement between the agent and the manufacturer that outlines territories, selling prices, order handling, delivery, service, and warranties. In service-based manufacturer's agent companies, the more services that are offered, the higher the commission. These types of agents are commonly used in the sales of apparel, machinery and equipment, steel, furniture, and automotive products.

Two other types of agents, import and export agents, specialize in international trade. Import agents find products in foreign markets and sell them in their home countries. In many countries, it is extremely difficult and sometimes illegal to try to sell products from another country without going through an import agent. Export agents locate and develop markets abroad for products that are manufactured in their home countries.

Selling agents are middlemen who market a whole product line or a manufacturer's entire output. They perform all the functions of wholesaling, except that they do not take title of the product. Frequently, companies opt to use selling agents in place of marketing departments. To avoid conflicts of interest, selling agents represent noncompeting product lines and have the authority for pricing, promotion, and distribution of those products.

Finally, there are commission merchants. These are agents who receive goods on consignment and negotiate sales in large central markets. Their specialty is securing the best price possible under market conditions. These agents are primarily found in agricultural industries, taking possession of truckloads of commodities and arranging for grading, storage, and transportation. Commission merchants deduct commission and the expense of making the sale, and then turn over the profits to the producer. Although they provide planning and assistance with credit, they do not provide any promotional support.

Since brokers are the intermediaries that bring buyers and sellers together, they are paid a commission on the transaction. Brokers do not enter into contracts for extended periods; rather they work on a transaction-bytransaction basis. There are thousands of wholesale brokers in the United States, with most of them concentrated in food and agricultural industries. Brokers are especially useful to sellers of supermarket products and real estate. Food brokers, for example, sell food and general merchandise to retailer-owned stores and merchant wholesalers, grocery chains, food processors, and organizational buyers. Since brokers perform fewer functions than other intermediaries, they are not involved in financing, physical possession, pricing, or risk taking. What they offer instead is expertise in a particular commodity and a network of established products.

Manufacturer-Owned Wholesalers

Thousands of manufacturer-owned wholesalers operate in the United States. These wholesalers maintain inventory and perform a wide variety of functions, such as providing delivery, credit, market feedback, and assistance with promotional planning. Manufacturer's sales offices are the other type of producer-owned wholesaler. They do not maintain inventory, but they assist with sales and service, market analysis, and the billing and collection of funds for products sold. Both sales branches and sales offices are located away from the manufacturing plants and closer to customers because the producers are attempting to reach their customers more effectively in an effort to create a competitive edge in the marketplace.


In the early years of the twenty-first century, wholesaling gross profits declined. Because of the economic recession, a decrease in new store construction, and competition, wholesaling growth declined. Chains, which usually prefer to buy directly from manufacturers, grabbed a larger part of the market in areas such as home-improvement products. But, while tough economic conditions can affect wholesalers adversely, a booming economy can do the same thing. Retailers, experiencing rapid sales growth, may opt to buy directly from manufacturers, thus cutting wholesalers from the supply chain.

Both retailers and producers are eager to improve their profitability, and the wholesalers are caught in the middle. Industry observers see the power in the channel shifting more toward the retailer, who may choose to reevaluate the current supply-chain members.

Because of these changing market conditions, wholesalers are concentrating on strategies to improve service by adding more value-added concepts. Even though wholesaling has traditionally involved the handling of goods, the activities and functions of wholesalers are being applied more and more in service industries. Access Graphics in Boulder, Colorado, for example, takes an active role in pursuing new business for its vendors by providing them with customer databases that help resellers in identifying sales prospects. In addition, it also provides in-house graphic departments that produce the promotional materials needed by resellers and their customers. Access Graphics believes in adding value to its supply-chain relationships; as a result, it has established a staff of system engineers who help resellers with installation, system design, and computer-memory testing.

Tough market conditions in the United States have forced many wholesalers to adopt a global perspective. Wholesalers have been encouraged by the North American Free Trade Agreement to expand their operations into Mexico and Canada. It was expected that by 2010, 25 percent of wholesalers' business would come from foreign markets.

International wholesalers will experience stages of growth depending on the economic development of foreign economies. All-purpose wholesale merchants will dominate in simple economic conditions, while an expanding economy will see the emergence of interregional wholesalers. As foreign economic conditions mature, there will be a growth of specialized wholesalers, with product-line and functionally specialized wholesalers dominating the chain. In an advanced economy, channels become controlled by large-scale retailers and manufacturers, thus causing a decline in the need for conventional wholesalers.

Wholesalers that expand through globalization will face the challenge of competition against current wholesalers, new languages, an array of different legal systems, and a multitude of cultural differences. Nevertheless, a decision to stick with domestic markets only could hamper the growth of a wholesaler.


Advances in electronic commerce have opened new avenues for reaching buyers and creating customer values. This interactive technology has been made possible by electronic marketing channels, which use the Internet to make goods and services available for consumption for use by both end consumers and business buyers.

see also Discount Stores ; Electronic Commerce ; Marketing ; Retailers


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Pride, William M., and Ferrell, O. C. (2006). Marketing concepts and strategies (Rev. ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rosenbloom, Bert (2004). Marketing channels: A management view (7th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2006). Statistical abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: Author.

Patricia A. Spirou

Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, 2nd ed. Spirou, Patricia

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