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In the past, I bought all the school supplies for my kids at a very well-organized office supply outlet. Most of their customers were business customers, and we “normal” consumers were more or less allowed, but always nicely treated. Although they were a little bit more expensive, I liked to go there, because I got everything I needed in one location, and their service was fabulous.

Sadly, they have now closed.  The last time I was there, everything was on sale. I was absolutely astonished and asked if they were planning to move to another place, already hoping that the distance would not be that far from their current location.   They were definitely planning to move… but to an online presence only, complemented with a phone help desk.

With tears in his eyes, one of the customer service representatives told me how he was going to miss the daily face-to-face meetings with his customers, and he expressed his doubts about how a phone call could replace the personal help within the store.

I tried last week to place an online order, and this was quite an experience – as a B2C customer, (ok, I am not their target group) I was asked to discuss my concerns on the telephone. I was then informed that I had to write an email, citing my customer service and  online ordering issues, and only then, I would receive a response. This seemed like an excessive amount of work on my part, so I decided to order somewhere else.  

Is this really the answer to an ever-changing B2B world… closing branches in favor of an ecommerce presence without the customer service component to make it effective? Can the service of a branch store -from directly available (“emergency”) stock to expert knowledge and maybe a free coffee be moved into online only? 

It is clear, that with the increase of ecommerce and the importance of  providing multiple sales channels to serve today’s mobile and connected customers that in some industries branches will be closing.

With decreased delivery times, (“24 h was yesterday” according to a recent conversation I had with a distributor of electronic goods) the possibility to pick up immediately needed goods that were not ordered before might be not so important anymore.  With detailed product information on the web page, online training possibilities and video chat, the need of face-to-face service may drop.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that store branches will continue. Their role in the sales process may be changing, but they will stay as a point to meet with fellow craftsmen, a physical location for on-site training and product demonstrations, as pick up station of products ordered online or even as show room for the customer’s customer (e.g. bathroom exhibition).

In branches Wholesale Distributors can provide value-added services to their customers and carve out their position in the value chain in light of the co-existence of online and brick-and-mortar stores – as we see within Retail.  Emphasis should be made on providing a seamless and positive customer experience, despite the sales channel.

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