People who write anonymous poison pen letters to the editor are the literary equivalent of flashers. The publications I've edited have always had a policy not to waste ink letting these pathetic souls expose themselves. (Supply House Times will grant anonymity to letter writers who request it, but only if they are identified to the editorial staff.) However, an exception ought to be made for one such missive, because it reinforces a key point made by the offending article - demoralization within the wholesaler community.
The unsigned letter, dated April 26, 2001, is reprinted in full, interspersed with my comments.
The diatribe begins: "Your article, 'More Hope, Less Mope,' (April 2001) is the typical mindless uttering of someone whose income is derived from the manufacturers that have sought to destroy the wholesale channel.
"If you really wanted to do some good for the plumbing wholesale industry, you would investigate and publish guidelines the industry might follow in pursuing these manufacturers under the federal antitrust laws, including those under the Robinson-Patman Act concerning price discrimination. Or perhaps you may want to explain why a major brand of disposer is cheaper at the local 'big box' retailer than at their maximum quantity discount price as printed in their 'wholesale' net price sheet."
Point of order: Should one be amused or alarmed at the paranoia of people who accuse their trading partners of purposely seeking to destroy their segment of the channel? I've heard many similar complaints during my years editing Plumbing & Mechanical magazine, from contractors swearing that wholesalers are out to do them in. As if anyone in the supply chain stands to gain from sabotaging the business of his customers.
It's a serious accusation to charge someone with violating the Robinson-Patman Act. Wholesalers are in a much better position to blow the whistle than anyone in the trade press will ever be, however. In any case, I suspect most such accusations rest on wispy legal footing.
As for the big boxes buying cheaper than wholesale list, it's because published discounts need not be extended to infinity. The list may stop with truckload prices, but there's a certain logic to giving buyers who order multiple truckloads a better price than someone who buys just one. Don't wholesalers benefit from buying group rebates that are off the sheet? How about the home office five, special bid pricing and negotiated deals? Price sheets are not chiseled in stone.
The big boxes squeeze their vendors mercilessly. Nobody likes it, least of all the vendors, but that's what happens in the business world when a buyer negotiates from strength.
Diatribe resumes: "Instead of preaching from the pulpit about how wholesalers can become more efficient in their already 'stripped-to-the-bone' operations, you can enlighten all of us morbid souls as to the reasons why homebuilders receive 'bribes' (incentive allowances), contractors receive shipments of free goods, and yet wholesalers continue to pay full price and act as prime lenders for both of these parties. Frankly, we're all sick of the economic efficiency motivational speech."
Point of order: The article that set this person off had not a single sentence addressing wholesaler operating efficiency. I can handle being vilified, but please, spare me someone else's sins.
As for his other point, raise your hands, all you wholesalers, who have never received special considerations from any vendor, be it extended terms, promotional assistance, special discounts, rebates, or anything else of tangible value.
Diatribe resumes: "Your comment concerning the state of mind among the wholesalers in the industry is not one of depression or doom and gloom but one of fear. Fear that one's life's work has been wasted. Fear that the inventory has become worthless. Fear that past relationships and business dealings are meaningless. Your psychological assessment is dreadfully wrong, fear has replaced the energetic entrepreneurial attitude of the past."
Point of order: Let's not nit-pick between the semantics of fear and what I described as doom and gloom. Call it what you will. It's a dark cloud hanging over the industry, regardless.
Diatribe resumes: "With all due respect to Charlie Horton, extolling the virtues of remaining in the proletariat sounds more like a communist philosophy rather than that believed here in the United States (do you really believe that this will attract the best and brightest minds among our youth to enter this industry?). It's fine to have a grass roots approach to management and I agree it would be downright refreshing to hear something besides techno-speak. It's just that I cannot believe that a manager can effectively stay abreast of every kinky discount rebate, and changing price sheet while picking the order and loading the delivery truck. But, rest assured this approach sure eliminates all those middle level jobs within the organization."
Point of order: Not since Monty Python's dead parrot skit have I heard anything so funny as Charlie Horton being accused of communist sympathies.
He was, however, fond of lambasting elitists. Charlie would have had a lot of fun with this character.
Diatribe resumes: "So, why wouldn't any self-respecting American capitalist feel depressed as he watches his return on investment for his inventory be ground to zero as a result of obsolescence, illegal trade practices, and plain ol' lack of customer service and respect on behalf of the manufacturer to which he just sent a check ? (signed) Anonymous."
Point of order: Sheesh. What a whiner. No wonder the individual doesn't feel like identifying himself/herself.
Diatribe resumes: "P.S. Due to Stalinist-like tactics used by the manufacturers, I have chosen to remain anonymous because like most of us proletariat, I feel powerless in my ability to effectuate change and I fear becoming one of another numberless statistic. Another wholesaler tombstone."
Point of order: Thank you, Mr./Ms. Phantom, for saving me the trouble of pointing out the cowardice inherent in your cloak of anonymity.
My closing message is to reiterate what I said in the editorial that triggered this letter writer's soliloquy of self-pity:
C'mon, wholesalers, snap out of it. Nobody in this industry has reason to wallow in malaise. Yours is a noble business within a great industry, and the vast majority of you enjoy prosperity that would be the envy of 99% of the people in the world. Your business has weathered the worst of the competitive storms from retailers and consolidators. It's a great time to be a wholesaler. Keep your head up and get engaged to make this industry even better than it is.