Resale Distributors by hithereladies


  Controlling The Non-Price Conditions
            Of Product Resale

§10.01(a) generally?
       Normally, yes. Exclusive distribution is generally believed to promote interbrand
competition (between manufacturers of competing products) and to provide efficiency
in the distribution of a particular supplier’s product. Such restrictions are evaluated
under the rule of reason, in which the risk of liability generally increases only with the
supplier’s market share. So long as there is ample interbrand competition for the product
in question or the supplier does not dually distribute, i.e., compete for certain accounts
on the customer’s level, such exclusive arrangements pass muster.
       A supplier also may appoint a new exclusive distributor for its products even if the
distributor-in-waiting is the one that suggests it. But when such exclusivity is so solicited,
the supplier must be particularly careful that the request is not part of a conspiracy among
the prospective distributor and its competitors to reduce or eliminate competition—by
dividing their sales territories, markets, or resale customers. If that happens, the supplier
too would be liable.
       Likewise, a supplier may replace an existing exclusive distributor with another
exclusive distributor, even at the request of the second distributor, and incur no antitrust
liability unless it has substantial market power (generally, measured as at least 25 percent
of any relevant market). Even then, there may be no antitrust liability if there is no
other supplier or customer involved in the decision. Of course, if the ousted distributor
happened to have a contract with the supplier, the new distributor still may be liable
for interference with that contract (a tort providing at least the possibility of punitive
damages against the malefactor).
       The “exclusivity” restrictions that tend to be the least restrictive and, therefore, the
least risky, include:

202   • Antitrust Law                                                                 §10.01(b)

       1. Areas of primary responsibility that define a geographic area in which each
            customer will devote its greatest sales efforts;
       2. Focus on a list of primary accounts to which a customer will devote its greatest
            (but not necessarily only) sales efforts;
       3. Quota systems based upon sales within an area of primary responsibility or to
            a predefined class of resale customers;
       4. Pass-over systems that enable a customer to sell outside its area of primary
            responsibility by agreeing to pay a reasonable fee to the customer in the area
            where the resale account is located, and to subsidize warranty, after-sale service,
            or other legitimate post-sale obligations;
       5. Not shipping to a customer at a location outside its area of primary responsibility;
       6. Prohibiting a customer from picking up goods at a supplier’s warehouse outside
            its area of primary responsibility.
       Stricter territorial or customer restrictions, which prohibit a customer from selling
to accounts outside its predefined areas or from a specific list outright, more severely
limit that customer’s ability to compete and, therefore, pose somewhat greater, although
still not necessarily great, antitrust risk.

§10.01(b) From One Location?
      In general, location exclusivity is the least onerous restraint because dealers remain
free to resell to any customer they wish wherever one is found. In the panoply of supplier-
instituted resale restrictions, these are thus most often found lawful when weighed under
the rule of reason. (See §2.01(d), above.) However, monopolists, near monopolists,
and dual distributors should first consult antitrust counsel before employing even these
limited restrictions, or any of those that follow.

§10.01(c) Within One Territory Only?
       If a supplier wishes to restrict each customer from selling its product to persons
outside the customer’s assigned geographic areas, that, too, will be weighed under the
rule of reason. But because it is somewhat more confining than a mere location clause,
it is somewhat more difficult to defend. As before, a supplier’s risk of liability generally
increases with its market share (with less than 20 percent creating assumable risk and
more than 30 percent approaching the amber/red zone).
       If the intended effect of the territorial restriction is to promote interbrand competition
(for example, between Toyota and Nissan) more than harm intrabrand competition
(say, between Toyota dealers), and is no more restrictive than required to promote such
interbrand competition, it should be legal. But, because no scale has been developed to
weigh interbrand versus intrabrand competition, some proxy is needed. Factors helping
to establish that territorial restrictions will have the net effect of promoting interbrand
competition for the supplier’s product include whether:
§10.01(d)                            Controlling Product Resale Conditions •                   203

      1. It is new to the market;
      2. Its market share is modest;
      3. Its market share is declining; and
      4. There is active price competition for its product.
      In each case, the validity of such restrictions depends on the above-mentioned
interbrand/intrabrand tradeoff, as well as their purpose and effect, and whether the least
restrictive alternative available to serve the purpose was chosen. For example, if the stated
purpose of the restriction is to improve warranty service, a supplier must be ready to show
that there is no less confining way to meet this objective. Any such strategy, therefore,
should not be planned casually.

§10.01(d) To One Type Of Customer?
       A supplier may bar distributors from dealing with particular types of ultimate
customers, so long as this is not part of a scheme to maintain resale prices, is not requested
by distributors to eliminate or reduce competition among them, and does not involve
dual distribution. (See §10.04, below.) An example of such a customer restriction would
be barring distributors from selling cosmetics to mass merchandisers, permitting them
to sell only to licensed cosmetologists. Another would be a restriction barring the sale of
medical supplies to retail outlets or on the Internet, permitting them only to be sold to
hospitals. A distributor also may be barred by the supplier from selling to retail outlets
known to provide poor service.
       One of the reasons often given for such customer restrictions is “health and safety.”
That is, distributors may not sell to retailers that do not have the requisite training in the
proper use of, or facilities to safely sell, the product. For example, hair care products sold
in bulk to beauty salons and hairdressers are often packaged without detailed instructions.
Sales of such products could properly be confined to those (coincidentally high-margin)
outlets because professional users are (theoretically, at least) more familiar with the proper
use of those products. If they were made available for home use (then likely to be resold
by lower margin outlets), different packaging and instructions might be required. If the
manufacturer does not wish to provide such packaging or instructions, it can legally keep
its merchandise out of such over-the-counter outlets. These types of justifications are
measured under the rule of reason. The supplier should, at a minimum, have a plausible
(nonprice-controlling) basis for its decision.
       If a supplier is a dual distributor, the more it directly sells at its distributors’ customer
level, the less it may do to restrict those competing distributors. However, if the customer
restrictions imposed (e.g., barring distributors from selling to so-called house accounts)
have no impact on the prices at which the products are generally resold, they should be
readily defensible.

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