by Andris A. Zoltners, Prabhakant Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer
Since the dawn of the internet era, experts have predicted that technology will replace salespeople, and it’s easy to find examples. From 2005 to 2017, U.S. pharmaceutical companies slashed one-third of their salespeople, while the use of digital information sources (email, podcasts, mobile apps, websites) grew. From 2009 to 2019, industrial supply distributor W.W. Grainger cut more than a quarter of its branch locations and numerous field sales jobs. Since the mid-1990s, Grainger had been investing in digital capabilities to supplement its network of branch stores and salespeople. By 2019, Grainger’s purely online “endless assortment” business was 15% of sales and growing. Grainger’s still dominant “high-touch solutions” business deployed a combination of field and inside sales forces, and digital channels against the largest customers. Meanwhile, Amazon’s industrial products distribution business, launched in 2015, was already half the size of Grainger’s in North America.