Pricing is undergoing a revolution fueled by big data, advanced analytics tools, and powerful digital capabilities. Distribution businesses are well positioned to reap the benefits of this revolution, given the high volume of transactions they support and the breadth and complexity of both their product and customer portfolios. The pricing capability is critically important in a business where margins tend to be razor thin; no other lever can do more to raise earnings. But mind-sets haven’t caught up. Many industry leaders still relegate pricing to a “deal desk” rather than making it the centerpiece of commercial excellence.
For years, distributors have pursued greater scale to expand margins by a few percentage points and return on sales in mergers that have significant overlap by up to 3 to 4 percent. Since the bottom of the Great Recession, nearly 30 percent of publicly traded distributors have acquired at least one other distributor (up from 20 percent in the decade before the recession), and revenue increases from the average acquisition today are roughly 35 percent larger.
In this industry-wide scramble for scale, attractive targets have become scarcer and thus more expensive, reducing returns on investment. Most industry leaders realize that once they have become the number-one or number-two player in a market, additional acquisitions can yield diminishing returns; indeed, many customers continue to use secondary suppliers to limit the risk of supply-chain disruption and sometimes to keep their primary suppliers honest. In addition, most acquirers face complex challenges as they try to merge far-flung sales organizations that make daily pricing decisions on hundreds of thousands of SKUs for thousands of customers and, at the same time, try to marry disparate IT systems, each with a patchwork of homegrown tools and expensive enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions.
But even as building scale is delivering less value, raising margins through pricing is so complex that many big distributors have shied away from it. Instead, they allow sales teams to rely on their own knowledge and experience, assuming that each customer is unique and therefore no algorithm or dynamic pricing tool can offer useful insights. Mergers contribute to the problem when a focus on the challenges of integration causes managers to underinvest in data integration and analytical capabilities to optimize pricing across product catalogs, geographies, and organizational fiefdoms. Many focus on back-end margins—for example, maximizing supplier rebates and special pricing to expand margins—not realizing that gains in purchasing and procurement may be given away to customers due to a lack of pricing capabilities.
In contrast to past reliance on growth through M&A, the outperformers in the years ahead will be the distributors that see price optimization as the foundation of commercial excellence—speeding pricing approvals and helping salespeople make not just more and bigger deals but more profitable deals. For a distributor, pricing is by far the most powerful lever for improving overall margins and increasing profits. A 1 percent price increase across the product portfolio has more impact on bottom-line margins (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or EBITDA) than a 1 percent uplift in volume or a 1 percent reduction in procurement cost or in selling, general, and administrative expense (SG&A).
Looking across our database of 130 global and publicly traded distributors, we estimate that a 1 percent price increase would yield 22 percent increase in EBITDA margins (Exhibit 1), and a 25 percent uplift in stock price. Moreover, pricing has a disproportionate impact on a distributor’s enterprise value, with an increase of 20 percent for a 1 percent increase in price.
Even experienced salespeople may believe that raising prices means losing deals, especially when competitors offer similar products. They may argue for aggressive price cuts to keep large customers happy (and reach their own volume targets). Our qualitative and quantitative research reveals that the truth is more nuanced. A lack of product availability, poor service, and damaged customer relationships can scuttle more deals than high prices, for example, and low prices rarely win deals.
Our survey of more than 200 distribution customers across sectors indicates that pricing ranks sixth overall in what customers look for in a distributor (Exhibit 2). Price is the most important factor in winning deals on the key value items (KVIs) that represent the top 20 percent of products, which represent roughly 80 percent of an individual customer’s purchases. But most customers are far less price sensitive on the many other items in their shopping baskets. This is where distributors have the biggest opportunities to raise margins.
Salespeople hungry to make deals may continually ask for price reductions, but cutting prices in a low-margin environment risks eroding margins without enough volume uplift to make up the difference. For a distributor with gross margins of 18 percent, for example, the volume uplift required to break even is roughly 6 percent for a 1 percent price cut. Continuously lowering prices is a race to zero margin. In the long run, it makes more sense to build pricing strategies on each customer’s willingness to pay and a keen understanding of the nonprice factors that the customer values most.
In distribution, of course, the number of customers and array of SKUs are too large for any human sales rep to know exactly how much to charge in each situation. Instead, most focus on a handful of high-turn products they know well, supplemented by a shorthand approach to the remaining thousands of items, such as using the same markup, margin, or discount percentages across all other products. This can mean overpricing some items (which can shake the trust of the customer) and underpricing other items (resulting in missed margin opportunities).
The distributors who outperform are those whose sales reps focus less on pricing thousands of items and more on selling, growing share of wallet, and delivering on the distributor’s unique value propositions. Many of these winners have a pricing organization, digital tools, and analytical benchmarks to give sales reps the market and customer intelligence they need to drive volume and margins.
These distributors don’t raise prices across the board. Instead, they look for pockets of strategic pricing opportunities and continuously improve their approaches and systems. For instance, in a business with a large transportation-cost component, sales reps have clear incentives to include the cost of freight at the transaction level to avoid underpricing items with a higher shipping cost. Leading distributors drive changes in measurement, incentives, and behaviors to improve price quality and achieve customer loyalty and other desired business outcomes.
Leaders also keep pace with their customers’ rising procurement capabilities. Large companies have doubled their investments in procurement in just the past six years, giving their procurement teams new price-comparison tools, clean-sheeting techniques, and best practices in category management. Most companies would rather cut their own costs or persuade suppliers to drop theirs than ask customers to pay higher prices.
A handful of distributors have been pioneers in adopting pricing as a discipline and have invested in building pricing organizations with a mandate to deliver year-over-year margin improvement. They have then embarked on journeys to build pricing discipline and exception routines in the sales organization and adopt analytics and other tools to capture value.
Based on our experience standing up pricing organizations and supporting several distributors on their pricing journeys, we have laid out five key elements of building a profit-generating pricing organization that creates substantial, steady uplifts in margins, even during challenging economic times:
When we talk with decision makers at distributors that have not invested in pricing optimization, we ask what’s holding them back. We caution them that if they maintain this stance, they will be at an increasing disadvantage as customers consolidate and invest in procurement capabilities and competitors arm their pricing organizations with highly effective new approaches and powerful digital tools.
Over the past ten years, the distribution marketplace has grown more competitive, with the average gross margin across a global index of distributors contracting by 100 basis points despite a stable and growing global economy. The contraction has not been universal, however: top performers have grown margins by an average of 400 basis points, widening the gap between distributors that excel in pricing and those that do not.
Distributors that understand the importance of pricing and have invested in a best-in-class pricing organization have seen margin uplifts of 200 to 500 basis points. Furthermore, they continue to drive margin improvement and expand their advantages over the laggards. For distributors, price optimization is an essential part of a winning strategy.
This content was originally published here.