Let's Roll 'Em Out

’Tis the season to rethink how the electrical wholesaling industry should develop and market new products.

This holiday season's parade of new consumer products marching across the pages of zillions of newspaper advertising inserts from big box retailers and bombarding us 24/7 in television commercials made me think about the state of new product launches in the electrical business.

I can't think of any new products in the electrical business that have taken our market by storm like the latest iPod has done in the consumer electronics business. But that doesn't mean new products are any less critical to the health of the electrical market.

It's tough to hang a number on just how many new products are introduced each year in the electrical market. Any bleary-eyed business journalist covering this industry will tell you about the dozens of press releases they must read each week for new and not-so-new products from electrical manufacturers in search of a legitimately interesting new product. Some of the more outspoken editors may even grouse a bit about how many requests they get to tour manufacturers' booths at trade shows to see new products. One can also get a quick feel for the state of new product development in this business by counting the number of advertisements in the pages of the industry's distributor and end-user business publications that promote new products. You see more of all of the above in healthy business years, and not as much new product development when manufacturers must slash R&D and marketing budgets in down years.

But one thing remains a constant in the electrical wholesaling industry regarding new product launches: a steady stream of complaints from distributors, manufacturers, reps and end users about why the industry as a whole doesn't do a better job of marketing new products. Electrical distributors continue to look stupid when they first find out about their vendors' new products from customers who try to place an order for them at the counter area. Electrical manufacturers say electrical distributors are lousy at marketing new products, and wonder aloud why they prefer to focus on time-worn products that every distributor in town sells, rather than attempting to differentiate themselves in the market with supply and support for newer, possibly more exciting products.

Reps are stuck in the middle. They get paid more when they sell more. But manufacturers don't always pay a higher commission to compensate them for the additional time it takes reps to cultivate the market and create demand for new products.

Electrical contractors and other end users don't really care about the problems their distributors, reps and manufacturers have with new products. They just want a knowledgeable source of supply for new products that can help them do their jobs faster and more efficiently, with less manpower or more safely.

New products can be a tough sell in any business because they take more time to sell. Let's assume that a manufacturer has done its homework and identified a real-world customer need for a product by talking with end users in focus groups or at job sites and trade shows. With that customer feedback, they develop a quality, reasonably priced new product, that, if applicable, has passed the testing of Underwriters Laboratories or another third-part testing agency. Even when a manufacturer makes all the right moves in the product development process, the hardest part is still to come: convincing distributors, reps and other buying influences that the product is worth their selling time. That's a challenge that all selling partners in this market could and should work together on for their mutual profitability.

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