If a customer just looks at the price of a product, Amazon is going to look great in their eyes. It’s simply hard to beat the upfront costs they provide. However, if a customer learns to look beyond just the price tag and into other costs, it will see less of a value. Weidmaier has found inviting people to consider the entire cost of such a transaction — the time required to source the product (especially if new), place and track the order and then receive the order, which can often come in several shipments — can prove effective.

“Then there’s the time required to return incorrect items and receive credit,” says Weidmaier. “A lot has to go right for this type of purchase to be successful. With companies running lean, the question becomes, do they have the time and money to babysit the process?”

Another potential advantage for distributors is Amazon’s apparent determination to sprawl into as many markets as possible, adding layer upon layer of complexity to its operations. 

“It’s really hard to make things simple,” says Ensign.

Conversely, distributors who find a way to simplify their processes can find themselves well-positioned to compete. And there is the reality that, over time, distributors will continue to elevate their platforms and purchasing experiences, further giving them an edge — at least for certain companies, says Ensign.

“As the market identifies what it truly values, Amazon’s weaknesses may end up being negligible to the transactional entities,” says Ensign. “But to the higher-value entities the customer will be segmented by core business and need and that may be where Amazon’s weaknesses become more apparent.” 

Distributors can cross their fingers and make all the wishes they want, but it won’t change the fact that Amazon is here to stay. Equally as futile would be an attempt to fight Amazon on its terms — that’s a battle few will ever win. But all this certainly doesn’t mean jan/san distributors should just up and forfeit. They have every tool necessary to hold their own against a growing Amazon threat. They just need to do business on their terms.

“Know who you are,” says Ensign. “Know what the customer values and be the best you can be at providing this at the lowest cost. Don’t attempt to be Amazon; they have that box checked. Be who you believe the customer values and provide this as if your business depends on it.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer from Long Beach, California.

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