What Is The Difference Between Wholesalers And Distributors

Differences between Wholesalers & distributers - B2BWoo

Have you ever thought about how local grocery stores get all those boxes of cereal and toys?

It’s not like they come out magically! There must be someone who brings it all.

They are two special helpers who move things around: wholesalers and distributors.

They might sound similar and often used interchangeably, leading to confusion, but they perform two different roles in terms of their functions and relationships with manufacturers and retailers.

Wholesalers and distributors are both important players in the supply chain. While both facilitate the movement of goods from manufacturers to retailers, their specific functions and relationships within the chain vary. This blog post aims to clarify the key differences between wholesalers and distributors in a way that’s easy to understand.

The Supply Chain

Before we talk about the difference between a wholesaler and a distributor, let’s first understand what a supply chain is.

A supply chain is a complex network of entities that facilitates the production, movement, and sale of products from the point of manufacture to the end user, and is foundational to the global economy.

Within this entire network, every entity plays a pivotal role in ensuring goods are efficiently and effectively delivered to the market. Two critical but often misunderstood players in this process are wholesalers and distributors. While they may seem similar at first glance, understanding the nuanced differences between them is crucial for businesses looking to streamline their operations and maximize their market reach.

A supply chain encompasses several stages:

  • Vendors who supply raw materials.
  • Producers who transform these materials into products.
  • Warehouses for storage.
  • Distribution centers are responsible for delivering to retailers.
  • Retailers who sell the product to the end-user.

Each step is interconnected, with the success of the entire chain dependent on the smooth functioning of each component.

There exists a hierarchical structure within the entire supply chain, and distributors and wholesalers play specific roles within this structure:

Manufacturers (Producers) → Distributors → Wholesalers → Retailers → Consumers

Wholesalers and distributors operate within the distribution stage, acting as intermediaries between the manufacturers and the final points of sale. However, their roles, responsibilities, and relationships with other supply chain members vary significantly.

What is the Wholesaler?

A wholesaler is a type of intermediary in the supply chain that is commonly known as a trader. The wholesaler acts as a middleman between the manufacturer and the retailer. He/she purchases goods in large quantities from manufacturers or importers and sells them in smaller lots to retailers or, occasionally, to end consumers. Because wholesalers purchase products directly from manufacturers or producers, they purchase them at low prices and then sell them to retailers at higher prices. Consequently, the difference in price serves as their revenue source.

The primary aim of a wholesaler is to provide retailers with access to a variety of products without the necessity of ordering them directly from the producers, thereby saving on costs and minimizing the complexity of transactions.

Key Characteristics

  • Bulk Purchase and Sales: Wholesalers typically deal in large volumes, benefiting from economies of scale.
  • Storage: They often operate large warehouses where they store inventory before distribution.
  • Wide Product Range: Wholesalers may offer a broad selection of products, often from various manufacturers, giving retailers more choices.
  • Limited Services: While focused on moving products, wholesalers usually offer fewer value-added services compared to distributors.

Examples of Wholesale Operations

Think about a company that produces fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. This company grows and harvests large quantities of produce but doesn’t have the means to sell directly to consumers or even to individual retailers. Instead, they sell their produce to wholesalers. These wholesalers operate in large markets or distribution centers where they buy produce in bulk from multiple farms and producers. They then break down these bulk quantities into smaller lots and sell them to smaller grocery stores, restaurants, and other retailers.

Other examples:
  • Food and Beverage Wholesalers: Supplying restaurants, cafes, and small grocery stores with everything from fresh produce to canned goods.
  • Fashion and Apparel Wholesalers: Offering a wide range of clothing items from various brands to retail boutiques.
  • Hardware and Construction Materials Wholesalers: Providing lumber, tools, and construction materials to hardware stores and construction companies.

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What is a Distributor?

Distributors act as a distributing agent between manufacturers and the market, often holding exclusive rights to market and sell a product within a specified area. They work closely with manufacturers to make sure more people know about and buy their products. They just not only handle logistics but also marketing and sales support, even after people buy the products. But they have to do all this without using the manufacturer’s brand name.

Manufacturers cannot directly reach customers to sell products and services, thus they depend on middle agents or distributors who exclusively store and sell the company’s products in various locations.

Distributors offer numerous advantages to manufacturers, such as handling product storage, thus easing manufacturers’ storage responsibilities. Also, distributors frequently aid in sales and promotional efforts, transport it to different locations, and resell it to various parties.

Key Characteristics

  • Exclusive Agreements: Distributors often have exclusive contracts with manufacturers, limiting their product lines to specific brands.
  • Value-Added Services: They provide significant support, including marketing assistance, product training, and technical support.
  • Strategic Partnership: Distributors work closely with manufacturers to understand product intricacies, contributing to product development and marketing strategies.
  • Focused Product Range: Unlike wholesalers, distributors may specialize in specific product categories or brands, offering in-depth knowledge and support.

Examples of Distributor Operations

Imagine a company that manufactures electronic gadgets like smartphones. This company produces a large number of smartphones but doesn’t directly sell them to individual customers. Instead, they work with distributors who act as intermediaries between the manufacturer and various retailers. These distributors buy smartphones in bulk from the manufacturer and then sell them to different retailers across different regions. For example, they might supply smartphones to local phone shops, online retailers, or even big chain stores like Best Buy or Walmart.

Other examples:
  • Technology and Electronics Distributors: Specializing in distributing products from specific tech brands, offering installation services, and technical support.
  • Pharmaceutical Distributors: Partnering with drug manufacturers to distribute medications to pharmacies, hospitals, and healthcare facilities, ensuring compliance with regulatory standards.
  • Automotive Parts Distributors: Supplying auto parts from particular manufacturers to repair shops and auto dealerships, often providing product expertise and logistical support.

Overall Comparison Between Wholesalers and Distributors

1Buys in bulk from manufacturers and sells to retailers.Intermediary between manufacturers/wholesalers and retailers.
2Operates large-scale, wide product range.Scales vary and serve specific regions/industries.
3Focuses on storage and inventory management.Focuses on logistics and supply chain management.
4Offers discounts and bulk pricing.Negotiates pricing and terms with manufacturers.
5Broader geographical reach.More localized distribution network.
6Provides storage and order fulfillment.Offers sales support and product training.
7Operates from large warehouses.Smaller facilities, strategic locations.
8Focuses on trade business.Ensures product availability and distribution.
9Engages in direct sales.Acts as an intermediary and manages logistics.
10Wide range of product categories.Specializes in specific lines and brands.
11Sells at a markup from the purchase price.Negotiates pricing structures.
12Larger customer base.Builds strong retailer relationships.
13Handles varied product quantities.Manages quantities based on demand.
14Direct marketing efforts.Marketing within the distribution network.
15Owns products and holds inventory.Facilitates product movement without ownership.
16Handles returns and exchanges.Assists with retailer returns.
17Bridges gap between manufacturers and retailers.Manages logistics and inventory flow.
18Broader product assortment.Focused product offering.
19Limited involvement in customization.Provides customized solutions.
20Longer payment terms with retailers.Facilitates financial transactions.
21Wide scope of product sourcing.Focused sourcing approach.
22Broad market knowledge.In-depth understanding of retailers.
23Provides economies of scale.Ensures product availability.
24Volume-based negotiations.Negotiates exclusive rights.
25Centralized sourcing.Provides localized support.

Differences between Wholesalers and Distributors

The differences between wholesalers and distributors are foundational to their roles in the supply chain, affecting everything from their daily operations to strategic significance.

Below, we discuss in detail these key differences and their implications.

1. Nature of Relationships

Wholesalers: Their primary relationship is with retailers, serving as a crucial link by breaking down large shipments into manageable quantities. This relationship is predominantly transactional, focusing on the exchange of goods for payment. In some cases, wholesalers also sell directly to the public, especially in bulk or membership-based models.

Distributors: They maintain a closer relationship with both manufacturers and retailers. Distributors often enter into strategic partnerships with manufacturers, taking on the responsibility of not only distributing products but also enhancing their market presence and brand value. Their relationship with retailers is more collaborative, and aimed at ensuring product success through various support services.

2. Product Range

Wholesalers: Typically offer a broader range of products, including items from various manufacturers. This variety allows retailers to source diverse products from a single point, simplifying their inventory management and purchasing processes.

Distributors: Have a more focused product range, usually specializing in products from one or a few manufacturers. This specialization enables distributors to offer in-depth product knowledge and tailored services, enhancing the value proposition for both manufacturers and retailers.

3. Value-Added Services

Wholesalers: The services provided are generally limited to the procurement and delivery of products. Wholesalers focus on the efficiency of these processes, offering little in the way of marketing or after-sales support.

Distributors: Provide a wide array of value-added services, including product training, marketing assistance, after-sales support, and technical services. These services are crucial for ensuring product adoption and satisfaction, further integrating distributors into the supply chain.

4. Volume of Transactions

Wholesalers: Deal primarily in larger volumes, benefiting from economies of scale. Their transactions tend to be less frequent but involve significant quantities, catering to the needs of retailers stocking up on inventory.

Distributors: While also dealing in large volumes, distributors often have more frequent transactions and a closer relationship with the manufacturing process. This dynamic allows for a more responsive supply chain, adjusting quickly to changes in demand or product offerings.

5. Strategic Role

Wholesalers: Their role as bulk breakers is crucial for facilitating smaller transactions, enabling retailers of all sizes to access the products they need without the requirement for large capital investments in inventory.

Distributors: Play a more strategic role, often involved in the planning and execution of product launches, distribution strategies, and market penetration efforts. Their close partnership with manufacturers allows them to influence product development and positioning significantly.

6. Revenue Models

Wholesalers: Wholesalers derive their revenue from purchasing products in bulk at discounted prices from manufacturers or distributors. They then sell these products in smaller quantities to retailers at a markup. The revenue for wholesalers is essentially the difference between their purchase cost and the selling price to retailers.

Wholesalers have significant control over their revenue streams. They can strategically choose the products they buy, the suppliers they partner with, and the pricing strategies they employ when selling to retailers. This flexibility allows them to optimize their profit margins based on market demand and supply chain dynamics.

Distributors: Distributors primarily earn their revenue through commissions, which are a percentage of the net sales they generate for the manufacturer. This model aligns their interests with the manufacturers’, incentivizing them to maximize sales.

In some cases, especially when dealing with wholesalers, distributors may earn a fixed amount per unit sold. For example, selling 1,500 units might earn them $150. This pricing model provides a predictable revenue stream based on volume sold.

Distributors’ revenue is also influenced by their strategic partnerships with manufacturers and collaborative efforts with retailers. By enhancing a product’s market presence and supporting retail success, distributors can indirectly boost their revenue potential.

7. Scope of Operations

Wholesalers: The scope of wholesalers’ operations is relatively limited, focusing primarily on selling products to retailers. Their business model is built around fulfilling large-quantity or bulk orders, which naturally aligns with the needs of larger retail operations.

Given their emphasis on bulk orders, wholesalers typically do not cater to small businesses or individual consumers seeking low-volume purchases. This limitation is a strategic choice, allowing them to streamline their operations and focus on high-volume transactions.

Distributors: In contrast, distributors operate within a much broader scope. Not only do they sell to retailers, but they also engage with wholesalers, expanding their market reach. This wide scope allows them to act as crucial intermediaries in the supply chain.

Distributors often take on additional roles, such as serving as sales representatives for manufacturers. This position enables them to explore and capitalize on market opportunities across a spectrum of business sizes, from large enterprises to small operations. Their ability to adapt and serve various segments of the market makes them integral to the supply chain’s overall dynamics.

Similarities between Wholesalers and Distributors

Despite the clear differences in their roles and scope of operations within the supply chain, wholesalers and distributors share several key similarities that underscore their importance in moving products from manufacturers to consumers. These similarities include:

  • Both operate within supply chains: Wholesalers and distributors play integral roles in the supply chain, facilitating the movement of goods from manufacturers to consumers. While their specific functions may vary, they contribute to the overall process of making and distributing goods or services.
  • Both serve as intermediaries: Despite their distinct roles, wholesalers and distributors act as intermediaries between manufacturers and retailers. Some manufacturers collaborate with distributors to reach wholesalers or retailers, while others opt for direct sales to wholesalers. Regardless, both wholesalers and distributors bridge the gap between producers and retailers in the distribution network.
  • Both adhere to the business-to-business (B2B) model: Wholesalers and distributors predominantly engage in business-to-business transactions, supplying products to retailers rather than selling directly to consumers. This contrasts with the business-to-consumer (B2C) model, where consumers interact directly with retailers. Additionally, in some cases, manufacturers may adopt a direct-to-consumer approach, bypassing intermediaries to sell products directly to end customers.


The relationships that wholesalers and distributors maintain with manufacturers, retailers, and occasionally end consumers, define their roles within the supply chain. Wholesalers are primarily focused on facilitating access to goods through bulk transactions, serving as a key resource for retailers looking to diversify their offerings without significant investments. In contrast, distributors engage in a more integrated approach, collaborating closely with manufacturers and retailers to ensure that products not only reach the market but also achieve desired sales outcomes and brand positioning. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for businesses in selecting the right partnerships to enhance their supply chain efficiency and market success.

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Khizra Khan is an experienced SEO and technical writer, specializing in e-commerce. Passionate about startups and technology, aiming to make complex technical concepts accessible to all. Her engaging writing style and deep research skills make her a go-to expert in digital innovation.