As convergence continues, will AV and IT coexist?
Because they sell AV products so cheap, Sandler can envision scenarios whereby CDW, Tech Data, and Ingram Micro could affect his business — particularly the fates of his AV distribution partners. “They could enable smaller organizations to get pricing that would create problems within my market,” he explains. “Today, they can't touch me, but their pricing is only going to get better.”
Commercial Sound and Video's Galatro has seen AV vendors trying to streamline their distribution by going with large IT distributors rather than going directly to integrators. “I think things are going to get more and more consolidated that way,” he says.
But can these big IT distributors build profitable businesses by selling complete lines of AV products at rock-bottom prices? Not even all IT distributors think so. “When we first started selling projectors 15 years ago, we could make a double-digit margin on them,” notes Dan Vitiello, head of inside sales for Annapolis Junction, MD-based IT distributor Pro Mark Technology. “But now you have big guys like CDW offering quotes at 1 percent. If we get an order for 100 LCD monitors, that's great, but we won't get too excited.”
ExhibitOne's Sandler says IT competitors typically only carry projectors and displays. “They might even carry Polycom,” he adds. “But from my perspective, I'm not going to run into them carrying Kramer or Biamp. I just don't see that happening.”
In fact, as Tech Data works to develop what it terms as “niche markets” — pro AV is among them — company officials have recently publicly conceded that they have a long way to go before they're viewed as a serious player by AV dealers and integrators. And in terms of service and installation, AV integrators seem safe — at least for now — from inter-professional competition.
On the corporate client side, for example, IT denizens say that even if they do now have access to cheap AV wares via volume purchases from Tech Data or CDW, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to dump their AV integrator. “We'll still have an AV contractor for any office construction we do,” says Brendan Heffernan, global project manager for Western Asset Management, headquartered in Pasadena, CA. “In some cases, we could probably pull it off ourselves. But somebody has to do the project drawings that show the conduit sizes, and someone has to know how to do all the cable termination. Besides, there's value in having one party own the whole AV system. That's a service that will continue.”
For his part, Sandler believes it will be easier going forward for AV service companies to assimilate computer wherewithal than for IT service pros to gain necessary AV skill sets. “If I wanted to build an IT division over here, I could go out and pick any number of Microsoft-certified engineers off a tree,” he says. “In the AV world, that doesn't exist. There's no formal lock-step training course I can take like there is in the IT world. I've seen plenty of IT companies try to infiltrate the AV business and fail because of that. One of the challenges in the IT world is finding experienced bodies — it's hard enough for us to do it in AV.”
Indeed, as large IT distributors look to integrate AV presence beyond the level of merely selling commodity products — and into their technology consulting acumen — such knowledge assimilation will be crucial for AV integrators. “More and more of our clients want us to provide additional turnkey solutions,” Sellers notes. “We feel the need to train and staff accordingly for that.”