Which is Better for Your Business? A Print Distributor or Manufacturer?

I’ve been in sales for more than 30 years, and I’ve found two distinct camps when it comes to a preference for working directly with a manufacturer or through a distributor.

While direct manufacturers argue they have better control over quality and project management (than do distributors) because the job is managed in-house, I beg to differ. Here are a few reasons why print distributors almost always win the battle by providing greater value:

1. Cost – Trade-only sources do not call on end-user clients, and therefore, do not have to absorb the costs associated with a sales team. That means no office space, training programs, HR support, AND salesperson salaries. This is why trade-only sources can sell for much less and allow room for the distributor to mark up the product and still be competitive. In both situations, a salesperson (from the manufacturer or the distributor) will be compensated, so going direct to a manufacturer really doesn’t cut out the so-called “middleman.”

2. Flexibility/Options – Distributors usually have strong relationships with dozens of trade-only facilities; while direct manufacturers usually have one location and are limited by the equipment in their own facility. It is almost impossible for a direct manufacturer to be competitive in a large range of products. 

When you think about, it is unreasonable to expect a single location to compete with a network of trade-only sources that specialize in various product segments. Distributors have the huge advantage when it comes to making sure your project is produced by a facility that matches the exact specifications of your project—and, also ensures competitive pricing over a broad range of print products.

3. Quality – Maintaining your brand is critical: This means upholding brand identity, adhering to style guides, and ensuring consistent print quality. Even direct manufacturers have multiple presses and various press operators to manage. What’s most important is providing the brand standard information, samples and following procedures—whether you’re working with a multiple-facility operation through a distributor or with single manufacturer. At the end of the day, the facility most committed to quality is your best bet.

4. Control – Is it really an advantage to be able to walk out onto the shop floor? Perhaps it is, but I question how often this is necessary. An important point to consider is attitude. A sales rep for a direct manufacturer works for and represents the company. Trade-only manufacturers work for distributors, and their livelihood is based on maintaining an impeccable reputation. This often results in a different attitude and perspective that translates to better quality.

5. Time – As a consumer, how much time do you have to devote to building and maintaining a trusted network of partners? How much extra time does it take to manage a stable of vendors, versus working with one trusted partner? A good distributor partner with a solid network will ensure competitive pricing, consistent quality, and customized service. In essence they’ll be an extension of your team.


Ronnie Stokes Jr