Computer resellers tend to be proud of their accreditations - and they have every right to be. Many accreditations are hard to come by in highly technical areas. A lot of effort is involved in becoming a Certified Novell Engineer and skillful management is needed in getting those specialists to remain on staff.
Some accreditations do a lot to homogenise what might otherwise be a standalone business. For the most part, customers know what they get when they walk into what were until recently known as Apple Centres. This is because Apple put quite a bit of effort into getting a unified feel for resellers.
But there are times when this can go too far. A few years ago, Apple resellers were forced to sell only Apple products. This is no longer the case, but it is worth considering when an accreditation takes the business out of the proprietor's hands and becomes a dictatorship, benevolent or otherwise.
The interesting thing in the current market is that resellers are divided into two camps, one of which appears to be easily influenced by manufacturers and the other of which does not. The standard dealer and Var fall into the latter category, whereas retailers, whether selling on the high street or the superstore, fall into the former.
Harry Thuillier, MD of distributor Fraser Associates, has noticed a change in vendors' attitudes over the years. 'The days when IBM told you to use yellow toilet paper are gone,' he says. 'Manufacturers no longer make demands that aren't perfectly sensible.' But that was not always so, and to look at the generic appearance of some retailers at the moment, the older style of 'thou shalt behave this way' has not entirely disappeared. But it is instructive to look at the past few years to find out why the 'thou shalt' syndrome has somewhat faded.
Apple was at the epicentre of the centralised look and feel of a vendor.
Peter Collins, UK reseller sales manager, recalls the company setting up its initial chain of Apple Centres, a now defunct accreditation. The vendor appointed Bang and Olufson to design a generic interior for resellers seeking access to Apple machines. 'The branding was strong, and most of the people that came into the Apple Centres thought they were walking into an Apple branch rather than an independent dealer,' he explains.
It paid off. Around 40 UK dealers signed up early on because Apple coughed up for the fittings. Ten years later, those dealers still have that generic look, which was later subsidised by soft margin.
So perhaps resellers of previous generations were less inclined to worry about what the business looked like? Yet the typical customer at the time was less informed than its modern-day counterpart and would probably have found comfort in such sameness.
Alexander Skeaping, marketing director of Microrent, chose the Apple Dealer route rather than the Apple Centre look and remained more independent.
He says he and his business partner Bob Larbey, who had owned an Apple reseller called Data Profile, were regarded as tolerable because they paid their bills. But it was made apparent to them often that they did not quite fit into the mainstream. 'It was all based on ideas that people had when they were running huge corporations from a distance.
They didn't have a clue what happened in a real dealership.' He derides the idea of being forced to spend u10,000 on Swedish furniture and believes Apple does the same. 'It took an awfully long time for the penny to drop.'
But the penny did drop partly because of the recession and partly because resellers had too much overhead. Collins says the branding ceased to be important when reseller margins started falling. 'Competition was increasing and margins were being squeezed' - for Apple and resellers. 'The overheads associated with Apple Centres were inappropriate.'
In 1992, Apple deregulated the appearance of its Apple Centres. Around the same time, John Major was running up to his first general election, interest rates were high and the gloss was definitely peeling away from the Thatcherite 80s. This, suggests Skeaping, influenced the revamp of Apple's and other vendors' ideas on showroom fittings. Thuillier recalls that IBM, too, would dictate the colour of the walls in a dealership, but it stopped doing so about the same time that Apple did. 'It went the way of the yuppies,' says Skeaping.
Cracks first started showing in the corporate image ethos when some of the larger resellers started going under or merging. 'Most of the big guys went bust and Apple became involved in significant write-offs,' observes Skeaping.
It was at this stage that vendors became better at listening to resellers and allowed them to pursue more of their own policies. In Skeaping's opinion that left the field open for those concentrating not on appearances, but on paying bills, delivering kit and supporting it when it fails to work. 'You don't get people going in saying the support is crap, but I love the furniture so I'll come back. It just doesn't happen.'
Skeaping knew things had changed forever when Apple visited a cross-section of dealers to ask about what made the business profitable, when previous visits had always been geared towards telling resellers what to do next.
This change in attitude from the major manufacturers was confirmed when Apple, IBM and Compaq abandoned the direct-to-dealers sales policies that had sustained them during the 80s boom. By encouraging distributors to handle volumes of product in the channel, they were abdicating all responsibility for what a sales premises might look like to the owners of those premises.
From that stage on, the accreditations on offer had to mean something other than 'you're allowed to sell the box' because, frankly, so was everyone else.
The other thing that happened was that the standard computer sale started to alter radically. Resellers were no longer competing among themselves.
They were competing with off-the-page vendors - some of which went down, spectacularly taking buyers' cash with them, but the remainder of which have acquired considerable respectability. And since 1991, customers have been able to go into high street premises or on trading estates and find systems on display at low prices.
This is where branding still counts because it's where people buy on price rather than on service and back-up. This may change when customers become better informed, or it may continue because of increasing quality controls at low costs from the manufacturers.
In place of a lookalike Apple Centre or IBM authorised dealer, the 'newbies' are offered custom-built sales handouts and displays, all of which look the same across the country regardless of which dealer is selling them.
Since they are at the stage of finding out about systems rather than being experts in them - much as the corporate buyers of the 80s were - this helps rather than hinders and is welcomed by most retailers.
The broadline reseller, meanwhile, is free of the previous constraints as to the look and feel of the business. As Thuillier points out, the larger companies, such as SCC and Computacenter, simply have too much clout to be dictated to. They are mature businesses in their own right, having avoided the cash crises that a number of their suppliers have gone through, while smaller resellers are not large enough to be significant.
Currently, manufacturer requirements include owning static mats and being financially solvent - common sense for anyone wanting to offer servicing of sensitive equipment. In the meantime, technical accreditations from Novell and others mean more as the vendors are pressured by mature businesses to offer something significant as a return on investment.
So in many ways, overt branding at the reseller stage has not so much died as shifted in the equation. It still exists, having moved to the next rung - the retailers have it now in a different form, and will do so as long as their customers need the reassurance of a familiar look.
How long that will be is open to conjecture.
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