Agency and Distribution – What’s the Difference?

This checklist highlights the circumstances in which your business may want to engage the services of an agent or a distributor.

What is an agent?

An agent is an intermediary appointed by a business to negotiate and possibly conclude contracts with customers on its behalf. An agent is paid commission on the sales they make, usually on a percentage basis.

What is a distributor?

A distributor is essentially an independent contractor. In a distributorship arrangement, a business sells its products to a distributor, who then sells the products on to their customer, adding a margin to cover its own costs and profit.

Why appoint an agent or distributor?

• In appointing a selling agent or distributor, you are effectively sub-contracting the selling function of your business. You may want to do this for a number of reasons, for example:

o to take advantage of an agent’s or distributor’s local knowledge and established trade connections; or

o to save the cost of having to establish your own sales operation.

• Always be clear about which arrangement is being used, as it is possible for a party to be both agent and distributor of different products under the same agreements (for example, a distributor in selling products but an agent for software relating to those products).

Why appoint an agent rather than a distributor?

There a number of situations where an agency arrangement may be preferable to a distributorship:

• If your business wants to retain greater control of the terms of sale of your products, in particular the price. Imposing resale price maintenance on a distributor is unlawful in most countries, but by selling through an agent your business can retain the freedom to fix your own prices for sale.

• If you want to restrict the agent’s freedom to choose the customers that they deal with. In most countries there are restrictions on the extent to which a supplier can restrict a distributor’s choice of customer. However, by using an agent, your business retains the freedom to choose who you deal with and with whom the agent deals. Generally, fewer competition law issues arise with agency rather than distributorship.

• Where your business wants to retain direct contact with your customer. For example, because of bespoke design work or highly specialised after-sales service that can only be effectively provided by your business.

• Where close control over marketing methods are important (for example, because brand image is a crucial factor for your business).

• If your business wants to retain the financial risk of stock (consignment stock with an agent would normally remain your business’ property).

• Typically, the commission paid to an agent is lower than the margin which a distributor will earn (since the distributor is taking a greater financial risk). Agency will therefore, in everyday terms, probably cost your business less than a distributorship.

What are the risks when appointing an agent?

Commercial Agents (Council Directive) Regulations 1993

Your business must always consider whether the Commercial Agents (Council Directive) Regulations 1993 apply to the arrangement. If they do apply, certain terms will automatically apply to the agency. In particular, your business may have to pay the agent compensation on termination or expiry of the agency.

Bribery Act 2010

• Under the Bribery Act 2010, your business will be criminally liable for acts of bribery committed by your agents intending to obtain or retain business or a business advantage for your business.

• You should carry out background checks on the proposed transaction, jurisdiction and the agent’s reputation.

• Your business should also consider putting in place adequate procedures to mitigate the risk, for example, by:

o creating an anti-bribery policy that agents must comply with; and

o monitoring and auditing agents on a regular basis.

More information

If you have any questions about the content of this checklist or require advice on commercial agent claims or commercial agents disputes, please contact Greg Hollingsworth, Director at Hollingsworths Solicitors. Greg Hollingsworth regularly advises on claims for compensation and indemnities by both companies and agents.

How can we help?

The Hollingsworth team will be happy to discuss your legal requirements in the first instance please fill in the form or call us on 0116 204 7260.

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