The Internet is giving reps a wake-up call. They have a new opportunity to explain their role to manufacturers and customers.

Shortly after I joined Supply House Times in 1990, Wal-Mart became the scourge of the manufacturers rep profession when it announced its intent to eliminate reps in its dealings with manufacturers. Some believed that Wal-Mart?s move would spell the beginning of the end for reps because other large retailers, and even wholesalers, eventually would follow suit.

A decade later, many reps have survived the Wal-Mart scare long enough to face a new threat of elimination from the Internet. I assume the same people who predicted the demise of the reps from Wal-Mart are at work again now.

The comparison with Wal-Mart is not intended to diminish the impact that the Internet will have on the rep business. The Internet -- with its availability of product information and its capacity for electronic commerce and communication -- will have far-reaching effects on reps, as it will on wholesalers.

What Wal-Mart did, however, was to make the rep's role in the distribution channel a hot topic. Wal-Mart gave manufacturers and wholesalers a chance to say publicly what they really thought about reps and the value that reps provide. Some sided with Wal-Mart; many did not.

More importantly, Wal-Mart afforded reps the opportunity to explain specifically what they do for both their vendors and their customers. Reps had a reason to talk about their sales and merchandising expertise, their market intelligence, their product knowledge and their customer service levels.

The smart reps did more than just get defensive. They not only clearly enunciated their value to others, they also took a step back to evaluate themselves. Where the criticism of others had merit, these reps made changes to enhance their value to vendors and wholesalers.

The Internet now gives reps another wake-up call. They have a new opportunity to weigh their strengths and weaknesses, then explain their role in very specific terms to manufacturers and customers.

If they haven't done so already, reps must come to terms with the Internet as a tool, not a threat. They have to analyze which functions that they now perform can be done faster and more easily over the Internet. And then they have to play to their own strengths and concentrate their energies there.

Wholesalers should do their part by telling reps exactly where they need help, so that the reps can help them. If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it?s that partners in the distribution channel have to learn to work more closely together.