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Horizontal & Vertical Channel Conflict: Examples & Tips to Resolve

Multi-channel systems, where brands sell the same product across multiple distribution channels, are becoming more common. Where established brands may once have offered their product through one primary distribution channel, emerging brands increasingly have to diversify across several distribution channels in order to stay relevant in new and evolving markets — this is especially true in the B2C marketplace. Unfortunately, this also means that channel conflict is becoming a more common issue.

Channel conflict occurs when identical products from the same brand are offered through multiple distribution channels. As your business grows, it is important to make plans for managing channel conflict before this problem almost inevitably arises. You should have a plan in place to turn any conflict into a positive for all players.

What Are the Different Types of Channel Conflict?

Three types of conflict are particularly common: vertical channel conflict, horizontal channel conflict, and multi-channel conflict.

  • Vertical channel conflict occurs amongst levels within the same distribution channel. For example, a wholesaler and manufacturer could have a dispute over a product’s price.
  • Horizontal channel conflict happens at the same level within one distribution channel. An example of this is when two retailers belonging to the same manufacturer have a discrepancy in terms of promotional schemes or area coverage.
  • Multi-channel conflict is when multiple distribution channels participate in selling the same brand. For example, if the same product is available on a retailer’s website and brick-and-mortar store at different price points.


What Is Horizontal Channel Conflict?

Horizontal channel conflict — in the realm of business and marketing — refers to a situation where entities at the same level of the distribution channel, such as competitors or retailers, clash over resources, customers, or market share. This conflict typically occurs when businesses that are supposed to be cooperating within the same channel end up competing with each other instead.

Example of Horizontal Conflict

Without getting lost in specifics, it's important to understand that horizontal channel conflict can have significant repercussions on a company's profitability and relationships with its partners. Here's a real-world example of horizontal channel conflict to illustrate this concept more vividly.

Horizontal channel conflict can manifest when two sellers on a platform like Amazon vie for the Buy Box for the same product listing — the coveted Buy Box placement can significantly impact sales. When these sellers engage in undercutting each other's prices or employing aggressive marketing tactics, it creates friction and negatively impacts both their businesses.

What Is Vertical Channel Conflict?

Vertical channel conflict, on the other hand, occurs when entities at different levels of the distribution channel, such as manufacturers and retailers or wholesalers, experience discord in their business interactions. This type of conflict often happens as a result of disagreements over pricing, distribution, or marketing strategies and can have a significant impact on the overall efficiency of the supply chain.

Example of Vertical Conflict

To further illustrate the concept of vertical channel conflict, let's explore another real-world example:

Picture that a manufacturer of consumer electronics introduces a new, innovative product. They want to launch it exclusively through one particular retailer — we'll use Best Buy. However, other retailers who have been selling the manufacturer's products for years become disgruntled and feel they are being unfairly excluded from the opportunity to sell this new item. This disagreement can lead to tensions and disputes within the distribution channel.

Related Reading: How to Optimize Your eCommerce Store for Conversions

7 Tips to Help Resolve Channel Conflict

Channel conflict can, undoubtedly cause problems for a business. However, it is also possible to mitigate the negative effects by transforming elements of such conflict into a benefit for all stakeholders. This is why having a plan for managing and resolving channel conflict is critical.

Acknowledge the Conflict

It is important to recognize that not all channel conflict is inherently bad. In fact, a lack of any channel conflict could be an indicator that a business does not have sufficient market coverage. For example, a limited number of “border wars,” in which members of the same network compete for sales in the same account, can indicate that a business is reaching sufficient market coverage and approaching the point of over-saturation.

However, when channel conflict does become destructive, there are several possible steps to managing it that will ultimately make all stakeholders better off.

Assess Risks and Opportunities Before Expansion

First, when deciding to expand your business, make a realistic assessment of both the risks and the opportunities that may arise from the decision. Then use this assessment to make a plan to pre-empt conflict.

Notify Distributors

Make sure that you notify your existing distributors of your intention to expand. While it may be tempting to keep the expansion quiet, it will be more beneficial in the long-run to clearly explain your goals to existing distributors. Share with them how the planned expansion will strengthen the brand, therefore benefiting them.

Accept Feedback and Criticism

When you share your vision with existing distributors, be ready to accept their feedback and criticism. Existing distributors who are nervous about potential competition may be unhappy about expansion regardless of whether a problem is likely to arise. Develop a plan ahead of time to ease such concerns. For example, making sure to price the product in a fair way across channels and not favoring any particular channel over another will allow all players to compete with one another on a fair playing field and minimize issues.

Develop Trust Using Marketing

Additionally, creating joint promotions and marketing campaigns for all channels to use can help develop trust and a sense of partnership across channels, while allowing you to save time and resources on developing multiple campaigns.

Claim Your Territory

Consider assigning distinct territorial boundaries for brand representation to eliminate geographically-based conflict among brick-and-mortar retailers. You may also develop and implement a system across channels to attribute leads to particular entities. This allows the entity that develops a particular lead to close a sale.

Consider Private Labeling

Although it is a more expensive option, private labeling for particular channels is one way to safely grow your business. This method is becoming increasingly popular among retailers and distributors. As an alternative to private labeling, you might also consider assigning particular products within your brand to specific channels. This can help to minimize competition.

The Dynamics of B2C Channel Conflict

For B2C businesses specifically, the challenge of channel conflict lies in balancing direct sales, online platforms, and retail partnerships. Here are a few ways you can explore the unique dynamics of B2C channel conflict, as well as some effective conflict resolution strategies.

  • Leveraging Technology: Using your eCommerce platform of choice to synchronize and streamline your operations can foster efficiency and reduce the risk of errors.
  • Incentivizing Collaboration: Encourage collaboration among your B2C channel partners by incentivizing teamwork and exploring strategies that turn potential conflicts into opportunities for joint success.
  • Monitoring and Adapting: It may seem obvious, but you can stay ahead of potential conflicts by monitoring choice KPIs in your market space.

eCommerce as an Accelerant of Channel Conflict

The rapid growth of eCommerce has accelerated the problem of channel conflict. While eCommerce used to be prohibitively expensive except for the largest brands, it is now possible — and cost-effective — for almost any sized business in the B2C arena to sell products online. However, eCommerce sites are often in competition with brick-and-mortar retailers, leading to channel conflict.

eCommerce Strategies to Manage Channel Conflict

If your B2C eCommerce site is one distribution channel among many, there are also several options to successfully manage and resolve channel conflict. Much like private labeling, exclusive branding can increase the value of your product for potential customers. Products that are custom-designed or personalized, for example, help your customers see your products as unique.

Additionally, bundling and offering products in kits makes a set of products more appealing to customers. This allows you to offer discounts on particular products in combination with others. Finally, product giveaways create value for your customers while driving sales. While this tactic might be viewed as a means of undercutting your retailers, it actually is beneficial to all parties. This is because it makes your product more memorable for customers and generates exposure.

Channel conflict is one of the major pitfalls you are likely to encounter as your business grows and evolves. Developing a plan for managing channel conflict will allow you to minimize the pitfalls and transform potential conflicts into a positive for all players — especially your customers.

READ MORE: Data-Driven Marketing for eCommerce Stores

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