Every IT vendor must look enviously at the idol status Apple has established among its end-users over the years. The majority of Mac users, historically consumers with high disposable incomes or specialist professional groups like graphic designers, have always identified themselves as a single community that knows a secret hidden from the rest of the IT world.
The one common moan among Mac users has always been the slow release of new products, which has often made its latest and greatest technology difficult to acquire quickly (especially if you are trying to buy it through your local Apple dealer). But that in itself has served only to reinforce the elitist sense of otherness the vendor has cultivated down the years (the most popular restaurants and bars in any city have always been the ones with the queues outside).
But if Apple is approaching nirvana when it comes to user perceptions, its reseller relationships are equally as special for all the wrong reasons. The latest salvo fired across the bows of its valued channel partners in the US came in the form of an online promise to offer end-users a 10 per cent discount to match reseller prices.
Price matching is not a new concept - it is a marketing gimmick used heavily and successfully by all sorts of retailers as an aggressive form of competition. But launching it against your own indirect channel partners, considered by most vendors as an extension of their own sales teams, seems like an ill-judged move.
At best, the decision to openly target the business of its partners has been poorly thought through. At worst, it is the clearest indication yet that Apple will stop at nothing in squeezing its partners wherever possible to improve its own bottom line. Most vendors are forever talking about a two-way street where they seek greater commitment from resellers in return for greater rewards: get more of your staff certified in our products and we will provide you with marketing funds; reach your sales target for the month and we will give you a rebate; exceeding your targets earns further fringe benefits.
From a general reseller perspective, there are always plenty of alternatives no matter what line of business you are in. Poor treatment from one vendor will often see a dealer switching sides and choosing to sell a rival's equipment. No business can react perfectly to every situation it encounters but a vendor that consistently treats its resellers poorly will quickly find that its channel is shopping around. It is a built-in mechanism that keeps the top tier of the channel honest.
Apple resellers have less room for manoeuvre. They may sell third-party products but their businesses are very closely tied into the Apple branding and it is not a simple matter of changing horses when a relationship goes sour.
If handled properly, these close ties could bring real strength to the Apple channel. After all, most of the staff in a typical Apple Centre will be Mac users themselves when they close the shop at the end of the day. They usually have a real passion for the vendor's technology and will evangelise its benefits to anyone that is prepared to listen. But in reality, the close ties between Apple and its channel have been consistently exploited by a vendor that acts like it is doing everybody a favour by letting them work on its behalf. This breeds suspicion and paranoia - hardly the feelings you would want to inspire among a community dedicated to growing your business through its own successes.