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The New E-Commerce Intermediaries

When companies first plunged into e-commerce, they thought success meant cutting out middlemen. That approach didn’t work, in part because e-businesses misunderstood the role of intermediaries. Middlemen are not costly, necessary evils. They solve problems for customers and, in so doing, they enable sales and create value for producers.

INSEAD’s Philip Anderson and Erin Anderson show how intermediaries are helping smart companies realize the promise of the Web. They explain intermediaries’ nine ways of adding value, suggesting that three will change, three will survive in a new form, and three (reducing uncertainty about quality, preserving customer anonymity and tailoring offerings to customer needs) present growth opportunities.

Middlemen can co-opt the Internet by offering services that would be too difficult for individual producers to provide. However, the authors caution, intermediaries must be open to new ways of doing business with suppliers and vice versa.

The Web transforms but does not eliminate the advantages of the middleman’s central lookout position. But what was once thought of as a straight distribution channel from supplier through middleman to customer is now more accurately described as a service hub. The player that takes the customer order — possibly a Web site — occupies the center and interacts with many partners.

The authors specify appropriate, fair incentives (for example, because Ethan Allen has quasi-independent furniture stores that customers browse before buying directly from the manufacturer’s Web site, the company automatically gives the nearest retailer a 10% tip). And they describe service-hub management that will generate enough trust to permit producers to get closer to customers — indirectly.

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