Skip to content

5 Things Distributors Won't Say to Your Face

The times have changed and so should YOU.

The capabilities of wine & spirits distributors have changed so much in the last six years or so, but you would never know it by skimming the job ads for winery and distillery sales reps.


One would be hard pressed to find a bigger disconnect from reality as than what you read in some of these bullet points taken from actual job descriptions:

  • Conduct wine education and portfolio presentations to the distributor sales force
  • Motivate and manage the wholesaler sales teams
  • Set expectations with the distributors
  • Make persuasive sales calls using wine knowledge
  • Create distributor incentive programs to drive more business

Everything on the above list is based upon distributors’ capabilities that used to exist but no longer exist simply because there are way too many brands trying to do the same thing.

New game = new rules

Due to being completely overwhelmed with too many brands to represent, distributors are simply incapable of doing all the things suppliers want them to do. No amount of education, training, or incentives will change this.

And distributors across the country expect their suppliers to figure this out for themselves. They are not going to come right out and tell you.

So as a free public service to distributors and suppliers everywhere, here is a list of 5 things you distributors won’t say to your face:

1. “You are only one of ten-to-twenty thousand brands in our portfolio.”

It is quite startling to see how oblivious most suppliers are to the plight of today’s modern distributors. “Overwhelmed” is the daily predicament they find themselves in. If you want to know how it feels to be a distributor sales representative, please follow @liquorindustry on Instagram. I know of no other place where you can “feel the pain” of distributor sales reps without a filter.

The human brain can only hold so much information. When you decide what the distributor sales team needs is more information about your products and your portfolio you ignore the reality that thousands of other suppliers have the same idea.

They are not going to complain, though, because it goes against their DNA of “giving good supplier.” YOU must figure this out for yourself and adjust accordingly.

Let’s take a look at some real numbers. I recently took a snapshot of how crowded a major Texas distributors spirits portfolio is and here is what I learned according to SevenFifty:

  • 7 sales divisions
  • 579 spirits supplier companies
  • 3,698 producers
  • 21,808 brands

In what universe can a supplier expect the distributor to give any kind of focus to one supplier’s brands under these conditions? This is the new reality!

2. “The best we can do is match your efforts.”

If there was ever a reliable rule by which to operate it is this: Don’t expect the distributor to do more than you (and your team) are doing in the market. Distributors love to help suppliers who help themselves. If you put it all on the distributor, you get what you deserve which is zilch. 

Suppliers who say, “Well, that is the distributors’ job,” will be continuously disappointed in their results and they have no one to blame but themselves. Distributors are not going to tell you this to your face - you are supposed to figure this out for yourself.

3. "We are not an extension of your sales team."

Besides matching your efforts, there are really only two other things a distributor can do for you: a) carry some of your products in their inventory and b) deliver to the accounts that you and your team have sold to. 

It is a critical but all-too-common mistake of suppliers to see the distributor's sales team as an extension of their own. Shockingly, there are suppliers who have zero salespeople of their own and expect the distributors to do all the selling for them. This is a fatal mistake.

The distributor is not going to come out and tell you this. You are supposed to figure this out for yourself. 

Now, to be fair, there was a time when this was true. Back when there were far more distributors and far fewer brands to sell. But, those days are long gone and they are not coming back.

Suppliers must adopt a new mantra which is this: “If it’s important to us, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

4. "More training and education does NOT mean more sales for you."

This one really gets me. In the opening paragraph above I used the average job description to point out how very common this misguided belief is. 

While it is certainly true that distributor salespeople need to have knowledge of your products and your portfolio the reality is there are just so many products and portfolios to keep track of it almost becomes an exercise in futility. 

Let’s say you spend 30 minutes tasting 3 wines with the sales team and while they are tasting you share a few important PowerPoint slides. This is all well and good except for 2 key things:

  • Most suppliers try to taste far more than 3 wines and make sales teams suffer through 50, 60 or more slides. 
  • 10 minutes after you leave the room, they’ve forgotten everything you told them because you are only one of 6-8 suppliers they are doing to see that day and no human can remember all that information.

Does this mean you should not provide training and information to the distributor sales teams? No, it does not. What I am saying is you need to a) provide it in a more efficient way (digitally and with self-serve delivery) and b) let go of any expectations that your time spent tasting and training is going to make any difference whatsoever.

This is REALLY hard for suppliers to accept, I know. But it IS the reality and the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can make the necessary changes to align with reality.

The truth is the typical “general sales meeting” isn’t what it used to be and this video will explain why general sales meetings done poorly are a huge waste of everyone’s time.

5. "If you pay us for new distribution incentives, don't expect those placements to 'stick.'"

One the surface, paying a distributor to build new points of distribution sounds like a great idea. And ten years ago, it would have been. But, part of how distributors accommodate thousands of suppliers' needs is to “rotate” or “churn” placements over and over in a merry-go-round of placements-on-wheels.

Here is how this works (ask me how I know): The distributor sales rep meets the requirements of the incentive in order to pocket the reward and then promptly does the same with someone else’s brand at the first opportunity. In fact, most distributor salespeople have a small group of accounts that participate in this game of musical chairs over and over again. 

This is called “churn” and it is a natural outgrowth of too many suppliers and brands to attempt to satisfy. This video will dive more deeply into the cause (and cure) for churn.

Embracing the "new playbook" for wine & spirits wholesalers


For those who merely skimmed this article, welcome to the summary section. Want to survive and thrive in the new environment? Here is what you need to do:

    • Accept the new reality of too many brands and too few distributors
    • Recognize that the distributor's capabilities have changed. This is not a function of desire or motivation. They are overwhelmed with too many things to sell so no amount of training or education will make much of a difference.
    • The best a distributor can do is match your efforts and if your efforts are zilch well you can guess what is going to happen.
    • The burden of building new sales and distribution has shifted from the distributor to the supplier. 
    • If something is important to you, you are going to have to do it yourself.
    • If “accountability” is your thing, get used to holding yourself and your team accountable, not your distributors.
    • Open your eyes! It’s a new day out there!

Want to learn more about how to survive and thrive in the modern distributors’ universe? Visit


Blog comments