Attention Wholesale – Is Wholesale a neglected research object in
Alexander Neffa*, Franz Molnara, Daniel Werthb, Patrick Weberb
aFerdinand-Steinbeis-Institute, Stuttgart, Germany
bFerdinand-Steinbeis-Institute, Heilbronn, Germany
Ferdinand-Steinbeis-Institute (FSTI), Filderhauptstr. 142, 70599 Stuttgart, Germany
Alexander Neff works as research assistant at the FSTI since 2017. His research focus is on
Wholesale, Business Transformation and Entrepreneurship. Alexander Neff studied Social
Sciences at the University of Stuttgart and graduated as Master of Arts in Business Sociology at
the University of Trier.
ORCiD: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1684-7962; LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-
Franz Molnar worked as student assistant at the FSTI from July 2020 to June 2021. During this
time, his research focus was on Wholesale. Franz Molnar studies technically oriented Business
Administration in a Master program at the University of Stuttgart.
Daniel Werth works as senior research fellow at the FSTI since 2019. His research focus is on
Multilateral Ecosystems, Platform Economy, Innovation, and Digital Value Creation. Daniel
Werth has a PhD in Business Psychology by the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
ORCiD: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0090-9313; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-
Patrick Weber works as research assistant at the FSTI since 2016. His research focus is on
Business Capabilities, IoT Ecosystems and Wholesale. Patrick Weber studied technically
oriented Business Administration and graduated as Master of Science at the University of
Attention Wholesale – Is Wholesale a neglected research object in
Wholesale in Germany is characterized by a high degree of diversity with
traditional business models. In almost every branch of industry or trade an
institutional wholesaler supplies and distributes all necessary products to
manufacturers and retailers. During the last few decades, the core business model
in wholesale – cost-efficient purchasing and selling products in large numbers –
has been amended with product specific services. However, research on German
wholesale gives the impression that it is not being explored to the same extent as
it is the case with German retail especially regarding business model
transformations and changes in competition. In this paper, we argue that the
German institutional wholesale does not get the scientific attention as a domain
compared to the retail sector. In a secondary data analysis based on the data
provided by the federal office of statistics we show the economic importance and
higher significance of the wholesale industry in Germany compared to the retail
sector. This fact is not reflected in scientific contributions. We conducted a
structured literature review on several databases and different queries in English
and German. A comparison of the keywords shows that the number of
publications with the keyword ‘retail’ succeeds the numbers of papers in which
the keyword ‘wholesale’ was found. In our research we conclude that German
wholesale as an industry is not researched in nearly the same depth as retail in
relation to its economic importance. For this we assume several reasons. (1) In
Germany, wholesale is not as present as retail in the public eye. (2) Wholesalers
are mostly part of the German Mittelstand (medium sized companies), the
backbone of the German economy, or part of the supply chains of important
industries, and therefore (3) wholesale is being considered by researchers as part
of larger field than as an object itself.
Keywords: wholesale, retail, digitalization, business transformation, small and
medium enterprises, SME
1. Introduction to German Wholesale
Wholesale in Germany is characterized by a high degree of diversity with largely
traditional business models. A wholesaler is a legally and economically independent
business that procures goods and sells them unchanged or after processing (Seÿffert
1972). The wholesale distributes products to commercial customers (Zentes et al.
2007b). A distinction is made between institutional and functional wholesaling.
Institutional or merchant wholesalers generate the largest part of their revenue by
purchasing, reselling, and distributing products in a large number to other organizations.
In contrast, functional wholesale includes every company in whose revenue process
wholesaling activities are one part of the business model, e.g. producing automobiles
(Ausschuss für Definitionen zu Handel und Distributionen 2006). In almost every
branch of industry or trade – may it be chemicals, agricultural products or even greeting
cards – a merchant wholesaler supplies and distributes all necessary products to
manufacturers and retailers. During the last few decades, the core business model in
wholesale – cost-efficient purchasing and selling products in large numbers – has been
amended with product specific services (Albers and Peters 1997; Samadi 2009; Weber
et al. 2019).
However, in southern Germany the numbers of new business formations in
wholesale decreased in the last 20 years by almost 50 % (Wrobel et al. 2015;
Statistisches Landesamt Baden-Württemberg 2021). Considering economic changes
brought, for instance, by the digitalization or global economic crises, research in
wholesale business models and transformation is crucial for the survival of hundreds of
companies, especially if the business models are based on foreign trade the companies
are highly affected by global developments. Wholesalers currently need to act in these
areas in particular, as the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a significant drop in sales for
wholesalers (Alber 2020). In the context of the digital transformation, wholesalers are
also confronted with the task of designing new business models. The design of business
models in wholesale has so far been largely unstructured (Kempermann and Pohl 2019).
In our work with wholesale companies
, General Managers told us that the
transformation of their traditional (family) businesses is a necessity for economic
survival. Surprisingly, research on German wholesale gives the impression that it is not
being explored to the same extent as it is the case with German retail especially
regarding business model transformations and changes in competition, e.g. new
competitors based on digital platforms like Amazon, Alibaba or Mercanteo or new
business models like direct selling by original equipment manufacturers (OEM)
(Gassmann and Sutter 2019; Kreutzer and Land 2016; Obermaier 2019; KPMG AG
In this paper, we argue that the German institutional wholesale does not get the
attention as an economic domain compared to the retail sector. In the following
chapters, we compare the wholesale and retail sector in its significance in Germany’s
economy as a starting point to answer our research question for this paper:
Does the German wholesale get a lower scientific attention than retail compared
to their economic relevance?
In a structured literature review we searched with different queries on several
scientific databases for a quantitative analysis on publications on these two sectors. In
addition, we conducted a frequent content analysis on the context of scientific
In the last four years our institute worked on several projects with the south-west German
association for wholesale. During this time, we gained insights about this domain in close
contact with General Managers and Management staff while researching for a study about
business capabilities in wholesale (Weber et al. 2019), creating and undertaking several
workshops on business transformations in wholesale, and accompanying three wholesalers in
pilot projects on their way to new business models (ongoing).
publications consider wholesale in Germany. The methodological approach is clarified
in the following chapter.
2. Methodological Approach
To show the difference between the wholesale and retail sectors’ significance in the
German economy we conducted a secondary data analysis based on the data provided
by the German federal office of statistics (Destatis). We compared statistical data in
several economic parameters: number of employers, total revenue, and share of revenue
by employee. These parameters were selected based on the assumption of scientific and
public interest for economic sectors and industries.
We confronted the results of the economic comparison with the number of
international publications about both German sectors in a structured literature review on
seven data bases according to (Levy and Ellis 2006). Four of these databases were
selected on their economic focus (EBSCOhost BSP, EBSCOhost EconLIT, ECONBIZ,
Emeral Insight). In addition, we selected a database in computer science for the interest
on research of digitalization in German wholesale and retail (IEEE), as well as JSTOR
and Web of Science as a more interdisciplinary approach.
Business Studies (Accounting, Finance, Economics,
Marketing, Management, Management Information Systems,
Economics (Capital Markets, (Inter-)National Studies,
Econmetrics, Economic Forecasting, Environmental
Business Studies, Economics
Business Studies (Management, Business, Social Sciences,
Library Studies, Education, Health and Social Care,
Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Engineering and
As suggested by Levy and Ellis (2006) we conducted the following approach:
The queries were based on the keywords ‘wholesale’ (with variations, e.g., wholesaler,
wholesaling, wholesal*), wholesale focus (‘distribution’, ‘logistics’, ‘B2B’, ‘supply
chain’) as well as regional limitations (‘Germany’ and ‘German’). As comparison retail
was also considered by using the keywords ‘retail’ (with variations as above), and
combinations with related terms, e.g., ‘customer’ and ‘B2C’. The research was
conducted with German equivalent keywords as well. The keywords should be found in
the title or abstract of papers published in academic journals between the years 2000
and 2020. This period considers the latest economic developments driven by cultural
and political changes as well as the use of innovative technologies. The research was
conducted in the period between May and June 2021.
Furthermore, we created a selective sample of published wholesale journal
papers and did a content frequency analysis according to Mayring (2014) on the most
common topics in which papers in the context of wholesale are internationally
published. This approach offers us further insights about what research is about if it
concerns German wholesale as its object of investigation. For this purpose, we screened
titles and abstracts for each individual focus on sectors (e.g., electricity or food) and
topics (e.g., prices and market).
3. Concerning Wholesale and Retail in Germany
The federal statistical office in Germany divides the economy in several economic
sectors (‘Wirtschaftszweige’), and further subdivides them with increasing details. For
instance, the trade sector (code WZ2008) is subdivided in the trade, maintenance, and
repair of motor vehicles (WZ08-45), wholesale (WZ08-46) and retail (WZ08-47). An
example for further subdivision is wholesale on beverages (WZ08-4634) or its retail
counterpart (WZ08-4725). Although our analysis excludes the trade sector of motor
vehicles, every other good and its trade which is necessary for the automobile industry
is still included, e.g. petroleum products or production machine parts (Statistisches
Bundesamt 2021). As written in the introduction wholesale in Germany concerns the
purchase and sale of goods in large numbers from and to other businesses as a core
business model (institutional wholesale) or as part of a larger value creation process like
the sale of motor vehicles by OEM (functional wholesale) (Ausschuss für Definitionen
zu Handel und Distributionen 2006). Since wholesale supplies businesses of all sectors
with necessary goods (Business to Business or B2B) retail, however, provides private
persons with products of daily life (Business to Customer or B2C) (Zentes et al. 2007b).
A comparison between three economic parameters of the two sectors shows the
difference between wholesale and retail in its economic significance in Germany in the
pre-pandemic year 2018. The year 2018 was selected in order to avoid effects on the
parameters by the Covid-19 crisis since the years of any crises can be seen as statistical
REVENUE BY EMPLOYEES
While retail employs almost twice as many than wholesale the latter doubles the
revenue of retail. A single wholesale employee generates more than 5 times the revenue
than one in retail. In our research we found no explanation why there are these
differences in these parameters. There are a few assumptions: Although the margin in
wholesale per sold good is lower the higher revenue per employee can explained by the
quantity and purpose for, e.g., production which generates a higher value of each good
that is impossible in retail with its smaller number of sales per buyer. This includes a
higher cost structure in retail than wholesale since there are higher personnel expenses.
However, regarding branches separately this is not a general rule. For instance, while
the revenue in German wholesale for beverages is almost three times higher in retail
(wholesale: 21,701m vs. retail: 6,527m € in 2018) retail in watches and jewelleries is
almost double as high than its counterpart in wholesale (wholesale: 2,972m vs. retail:
5,320m € in 2018) (Statistisches Bundesamt 2021).
4. Research Output on German Wholesale and Retail
The results of the structured literature review are focused on the main search queries
‘wholesale” and ‘retail’ accompanied with the regional limitations ‘German’ or
‘Germany’ found in titles and abstracts of academic journal publications. Further
specifications in the search queries for wholesale and retail (e.g. ‘B2B’ or ‘B2C’) led
only to a result without any scientific value besides the testing for missing out (see table
3). The search was done in English and German.
4.1 Research Results
The structured literature research was conducted in May and June of 2021 on seven
databases: EBSCOhost BSP, EconLit, EconBiz, JSTOR, Emerald Insight, IEEE Xplore,
and Web of Science. Limitations were the year of publications (2000 – 2020), as well as
titles and abstracts of articles in academic journals. Table 3 represents an example of the
search queries used. This example is based on EBSCOhost Business Source Premier
and is regarding results for ‘wholesale’. Research on retail was done vice versa.
großhandel OR grosshandel OR großhändler OR grosshändler
wholesale OR wholesaling OR wholesaler
S1 OR S2
deutschland OR deutsch OR bundesrepublik OR germany OR german
distribution OR trade OR supply chain OR logistics OR logistik OR
S3 AND S4
S3 AND S4 AND S5
Although set S7 represents the more complete approach in contrast to S6 the in
most cases already small results – especially regarding wholesale – led to a reduction of
the results for both sectors, and on Emerald Insight and IEEE even went down to 0. On
JSTOR the query of S7 was too long to be executed. Therefore, S6 which consists of
variations of the main search queries ‘wholesale’ and ‘retail’ with the limitation on
Germany in both languages (English and German) became the focus for this research
From 2000 until 2020 publications about the German retail sector outnumbers
the published articles about German wholesale. The quantity of publications on retail
predominates those on wholesale. There are 150 publications about the German
wholesale sector compared to 4,368 on retail, a ratio of 29:1 of retail to wholesale.
Figure 1 here
The result of 2830 German retail publications on the interdisciplinary JSTOR
database are the statistical outlier in this frequency analysis followed by the more
business focused databases EBSCOhost (717) and Emerald Insight (405). Most
publications on German wholesale were found on EBSCOhost (50) and the
interdisciplinary Web of Science (30), however, in quantity speaking, both results are
no comparison to the results on German retail on these databases (EBSCOhost ratio
14.3:1, and Web of Science ratio 8.1:1 for publications on German retail). The closest
output on scientific publications on German retail and wholesale between the years
2000 and 2020 can be found on the IEEE database with 10 results for retail and 6 for
Regarding the economic significance of both sectors (chapter 3) the search
results for scientific publications on German retail and wholesale on the seven
examined databases (a ratio of 29:1 for retail) does not nearly reflect the economic
ratios on total revenue (2.3:1 for wholesale), revenue by employee (5.1:1 for wholesale)
or total number of employees in these sectors (1.8:1 for retail).
4.2 Research Focus in Wholesale (a selective sample)
In a further content analysis, a sample of 49 papers were regarded in the context of
German wholesale. For this sample, we only considered open access publications.
Publications on several databases were counted as one. On EBSCOhost 23 publications
fulfilled these criteria, 6 on EconLIT and 19 on JSTOR. Three more could be found on
Web of Science and one more on IEEE. In our research, none were openly accessible on
Emerald Insight. Three papers were published on two databases, and therefore only
considered as one. The results are based on the search queries of chapter 4.1. The
contexts were identified in title, abstract and keywords.
Figure 2 here
The largest share of the analyzed papers was published in the context of prices
(24 mentions) and electricity (22), followed by market (13) and retail (10).
Technological developments driven, for instance, by the digitalization could be found in
only once in this sample concerning blockchain. The usual subjects of supply (9) and
distribution (3) are more common than firm entry (2) or start-ups (1). None of the
publications investigated business model transformations in the German wholesale
sector in 20 years of global economic developments. Since wholesale companies supply
goods to other economic sectors, and do so even in foreign trades, it is a surprise that
developments in wholesale business models have not been an object of investigations in
Our analysis shows that wholesale in Germany is far less studied than retail despite its
economic significance in revenue and revenue by employee. Regarding the
developments in new business models based on global economic changes brought, for
instance, by digital technologies or economic crises creating new competitions in
wholesale market research in this area is a necessity for further support in this area.
In our research we conclude that German wholesale as an economic sector is not
researched in nearly the same depth as retail in relation to its economic significance in
comparison to its counterpart retail, regarding the total revenue and the revenue per
employee. For this we assume several reasons. (1) In Germany, wholesale is not as
present as retail in the public eye. It is more likely that a private person takes notice if
several stores are out of business in a shopping street or mall which, hence, becomes
more and more vacant than bankruptcy of a few wholesalers. (2) Wholesalers are
mostly part of the German Mittelstand (medium sized companies) – the backbone of the
German economy – or part of the supply chains of important industries, like automobile.
Hence, research is more focused on the role of wholesale as distributor, logistic
specialist or Mittelstand than the sector itself. Therefore, changes in these areas like
business transformations in the era of digitalization are mostly considered as changes in
the field of the German Mittelstand or, for example, in the supply chain of the
automobile industry. Therefore, studies may consider developments in German
wholesale but are assigned to a larger context like the supply chain or a whole industry.
(3) The last point shows the biggest issue for researchers considering the German
wholesale: it is a part of almost every aspect in the German economy. Wholesalers like
any other company act in their business ecosystem (Moore 1993). Considering the
changes in market and competition driven by digitalization the ecosystem of a
wholesaler changes and adaption to the new situation is necessary. Research in
wholesale business models and transformation is crucial for the survival of hundreds of
companies (like study by Zentes, Hüffer, Pocsay and Chavie (2007a)). General
Managers in wholesale consider digitalization as an important topic and as a tipping
point for their company (Wrobel et al. 2015).
In an international context, wholesale is mostly regarded in electricity, prices,
and market. The German wholesale is apparently a phenomenon based in its economic
history or those that are similar to it (like Austria or Switzerland). However, even such
economic specialties like the German can be of interest for the international scientific
community since there is a lot to learn and many different movements especially in the
field of business transformation. On innovative technologies we experienced interesting
developments in additive manufacturing, blockchain, and artificial intelligence while
business research shows a lot of unknown potentials in wholesale companies based on
their own business capabilities.
6. Conclusion and Limitations
Like any other sector wholesale in Germany right now has as part of supply
chains its raison d’être. However, market and competition evolve with new innovations
and technologies which create a threatening situation for traditional business that do not
know their options, possibilities and potentials if evolving along. Consequently, there is
a lot of scientific potential for publications with German wholesale as the object of
investigations considering its economic relevance in Germany, especially regarding
business models and business transformations as well as changes in market driven by
digitalization and global crises.
The limitations of our research are based in the partly subjective selection of
databases – both EBSCOhost databases as well as JSTOR and IEEE are suggested as
vendors by Levy and Ellis (2006) – and queries in the structured literature review as
well as the identification of most common research topics in the content analysis of a
selective sample of only publicly accessible publications. Regardless of this, we expect
similar results using the same restrictions (queries, period of time of publication) on
other business focused or interdisciplinary databases and on a random sample of
published papers on wholesale topics.
Table 1. Selection of Databases
Table 2. Economic parameters on German wholesale and retail 2018 (Statistisches
Table 3. Research Example on EBSCOhost Business Source Premier on ‘wholesale”
(publications 2000 – 2020; titles and abstracts in academic journals)
Figure 1. Number of publications between 2000 and 2020 in titles and abstracts about
German retail and wholesale
Figure 2. Contexts of scientific papers on German wholesale between 2000 – 2020
openly accessible on the databases EBSCOhost, EconLIT, JSTOR, Emerald Insight,
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