Distribution Wars

I remember back when there were no “real” distributors in the commercial AV market.

There were some high-end production video distributors in and around the industry – mostly sending Sony and Panasonic gear, illegally, to South America. Oh, and, back before Belgium-based projector company, BARCO, had US-based dealers, there was a very creative distributor here in the US who was “two-stepping” the product to bring it to the American market.

But, that was pretty much it. B&H Photo, mostly a consumer video electronics discount retailer, offered some commercial AV products, but that was pretty much it.

Then, back in the early 1990’s, when our first real recession hit the commercial AV market, some so-called distributors appeared – and the timing couldn’t have been better. Credit was slashed and these new “distributors” were sort of like banks in a way. They would buy and stock AV gear – popular stuff at the time like Sony CRT Projectors, InFocus LCD panels, JBL speakers, etc – and sell them to smaller dealers who couldn’t afford the minimum purchasing requirements of a company like Sony or, in some cases, just needed the 30- or 60- day terms they could get through a distributor.

Then came Stampede, Visual Solutions and Electrograph. In less than a decade, these three companies brought legitimate distributing to the commercial AV market. And, the timing couldn’t have been better. As an industry, we’d grown from maybe 200 manufacturers to over 2000 – each with hundreds of SKUs and all vying for the attention of the less than 1500 commercial AV dealers in North America. They each stocked products, offered them for sale, overnight, and even offered late payment options to help finance a large system project.

Only Stampede and Visual Solutions are left standing today, but their model has been noticed and now is being emulated by some of the largest distributors of technology gear in the world.

Back in the early days of the commercial AV market, distributors just simply weren’t needed. In fact, many would argue it was a good-old-boys network. The market was literally small enough in 1980 that everyone knew everyone else. In fact, my first InfoComm, then called COMTEX, was an eye-opening experience as I had always thought of trade shows as people sitting behind booths selling stuff. But, standing there in Extron’s 20 x 10 booth in Atlanta, they didn’t take any orders – all three days. But, the people working the booth (at least the one’s other than me – I had just started with the company weeks earlier) all had endless conversations about life, the market, their kids, the weather, the dining plans, the new technology and, oh yea, the new products. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. And, in fact, they did.

So, when Kevin Collins of HB Communications needed a product, he didn’t need to go through a distributor, he’d just call the president of Extron and order it. If he needed a projector, he’d call the director of US Sales (someone who he’d known for years already) and order it. It was that small of a market.

Don’t get me wrong, the commercial AV market wasn’t some mom-and-pop operation – it was probably a $2-Billion market back in 1986. But, it was on the verge of explosive growth – it’s jus that no one knew it at the time.

Fast forward to today and by some estimates, we’re a $50 Billion market worldwide – depending on which products you lump into the category known as commercial AV.

Electrograph collapsed under the weight of their own bank’s impatience and Stampede and Visual Solutions are grabbing the lion’s share of the fallout.

But, enter the big guns. The first shot was fired at InfoComm when 60-year old ALMO Corporation hired former Electrograph president, Sam Taylor, to start a Commercial AV division – dubbed ALMO Pro A/V. Soon afterwards, Tech Data announced that they, too, would enter the commercial AV market and add that to their distribution arsenal – in fact nabbing Sony in the process. But, the biggie, so far, is Synnex – the largest IT distributor in the world at $8 Billion has entered the ProAV – completely validating the commercial AV market as NO LONGER A GOOD OLD BOY network.

But, truth be told, the good old boys are still in the market too. Kevin’s still at HB and although some of his buddies have retired and started wineries, or are seeing the world, most of them are still AV geeks – like me.

I think this is all good. I think we NEED distributors to help us grow to the next level, help educate us to the ways of the IT-world, leverage their financial power and advise us in new technology convergence (especially as we find ourselves using more IT-enabled AV gear). But, I see why some major manufacturers will hold off on using distributors, forever. Our market has matured and we’re now, officially, part of the mainstream economy – again, I see exponential growth in our near future as IT and AV finally merge and converge.