New Survey Data Reveals a Generational Shift in Distributor Preference
In recent surveys, young engineers ranked Amazon as their first choice for purchasing electrical components. We set out to investigate why.
Every year, EETech Media & Marketing (the parent company of All About Circuits) conducts a survey among users across all EETech Websites (AAC, EEPower, Maker Pro, Electronics Point) —divided generally by "career professionals" and "next-generation engineers."
2019 EETech survey respondents, broken key audience segments. Image used courtesy of EETech Media & Marketing
In recent years, one question—How do you rank your most preferred distributors?—solicited an unprecedented response from next-gen engineers, including students and engineers with one to five years of experience.
Next-gen engineers have increasingly ranked Amazon as their number one distributor of choice.
Results of the 2019 EETech survey, specifically asking engineers to rank their most preferred distributors. Image used courtesy of EETech Media & Marketing
But why? In the hope of understanding why next-gen engineers prefer Amazon as a distributor, we interviewed a number of young professionals working at different engineering companies. Their insights may help shed light on shifting sourcing preferences of younger engineers.
Amazon's Very Recent History as an E-Distributor
In 2015, Amazon introduced a new division within its business platform that sells electronic parts to engineers and companies worldwide. While this is a relatively new marketplace, it has recently gained much traction among engineers.
How next-gen (dark blue) vs. career professional engineers (light blue) ranked preferred distributors in 2017. Image used courtesy of EETech Media & Marketing
Over the past couple of years, Amazon's popularity has skyrocketed among younger engineers, with next-gen respondents ranking Amazon as their first distributor of choice both in 2017 and 2019.
Amazon's Key Appeals for Quick Turn Projects
One robotics engineer, Seth Schaffer, shed light on the three main qualities young engineers and tech hobbyists find attractive when ordering electronic parts: delivery speed, price, and support. This last point, customer support, is especially relevant when designers receive a defective product or product that does not satisfy their expectations.
Amazon's shipping policy. Screenshot used courtesy of Amazon
Amazon compares favorably to other distributors in all of these aspects, offering fast shipping, easy refunds and returns, and competitive prices for most products. In addition, Schaffer finds that the selection of electrical parts available on Amazon is constantly growing, thus engineers are likely to find what they are looking for.
Many users also leave reviews on Amazon, which makes it easier to tell whether a product is high quality before purchasing it.
Many Next-Gen Engineers Already Have Prime
“Prime shipping is fantastic for rapidly getting parts and trying them out,” Schaffer says. “If a part doesn’t work or fit your needs, you can very easily return it—no questions asked—and receive a full refund. Amazon is the go-to shopping site for most things, period. If you buy everything else there, you may as well start looking for engineering things there, too.”
Brett Garberman, a hardware designer in the motorcoach industry, thinks Amazon's user interface is the key to its success. “A distributor’s website is a tool, and it must be easy to use,” he says. “If I find myself fighting with the tool, I’m going to look for an alternative."
Amazon prides itself on its easy-to-use interface. Screenshot used courtesy of Amazon
Sam Gallagher, a senior electrical engineering student at Drexel University, highlights Amazon’s low delivery costs as one of its key advantages. Gallagher believes that young engineers look for distributors that offer a good selection of electrical parts and fast and affordable shipping, especially when they are developing technology in their free time.
“Fast shipping is where a lot of distributors fall short,” he explains. “You can spend less than a dollar for parts, only to pay $10+ on shipping, despite the low weight of components. Amazon’s shipping is unbeatable, so hobbyists will prefer it because hobby projects move much faster than 'professional' projects.”
Gallagher's comments brought up a common theme in the next-gen engineer's responses: respondents felt ordering from Amazon was most useful for hobbyist projects—not professional ones.
A Hobbyist's Distributor?
While Amazon seems to have become the top marketplace for many young engineers, most of the engineers we interviewed feel that it is primarily used for side projects rather than for professional ones.
“Maybe I'm a bit out-of-date in this regard, but I have never seen a practicing engineer use Amazon to order components,” Gallagher says. “Amazon is good enough for things like wire and cable, component assortments, and so on, but I didn't even know that major manufacturers were distributing through them."
Amazon's best sellers for circuit protection products. Screenshot used courtesy of Amazon
Gallagher adds that without the ethos of semiconductor giants (think ON Semiconductor, Analog Devices, and STMicroelectronics) backing Amazon, it doesn't hold much authority in his eyes—at least compared to other major distributors.
Amazon Hangups: Technical Search and Seller Representation
Most interviewees mentioned that established distributors, such as Digi-Key or Mouser, typically have far better search features on their website, which allow users to quickly filter out unsuitable components and find what they need.
“I would not purchase what I call 'jellybean' components (passives, diodes, discrete transistors, etc.) on Amazon,” Gaberman says. “I rely on Digi-Key and Mouser filters to help me select a component and rely on my familiarity with their websites to find component attributes.”
Digi-Key's parametric search, which allows users to filter by any number of features (size, cost, temperature, voltage, etc.). Screenshot used courtesy of Digi-Key
Robin Mitchell, AAC contributor and electronic engineer for a kit business called Mitch Electronics, does not use Amazon at all for his projects.
“Amazon is a confusing store that does not show seller pagers and gets sellers to fight to become the default supplier of a part,” Mitchell says. “It is also awful for sellers, as self-built products that are unique to a seller don’t direct a viewer to that seller's page."
When asked to summarize the differences between Amazon and more established distributors of electrical parts, Mitchell explained that more established distributors are better at correctly grouping components and providing RoHS and REACH documentation. Amazon, on the other hand, targets consumers who only need a few parts.
A Generational Difference in Component Sourcing?
This trend of younger engineers sourcing electrical components from Amazon (albeit for more hobbyist projects) leads us to another question: Are there underlying differences between how younger and older generations of engineers purchase parts? The engineers we interviewed said that there isn't.
“I haven’t observed any real differences,” Mitchell says. “Most of those in the field are savvy enough to use the internet to buy components. The industry requires that you are always on your feet and pushing through daily technological advancements to ensure that you are still relevant. The electronics industry is tough, and I feel sorry for those in it when they have to relearn everything again every five years.”
While Amazon may have gained popularity among young engineers, it is primarily used to buy parts for projects undertaken outside of the workplace. Both younger and older generations of engineers, therefore, still seem to rely on established distributors when it comes to purchasing parts for their professional endeavors.
“Traditional distributors serve the professional, while Amazon serves the consumer; at least, that is the relationship as I've ever experienced it,” Gallagher concludes.
“The search engines are different, the organization of products is different, and generally, Amazon doesn't have the relationships that traditional distributors have, as far as I'm aware. Amazon has made itself known to the world as a consumer-targeting distributor and they don't cater to production-level supply quantities. More often than not, they simply stand as a storefront between the buyer and whoever wants to sell.”
What are the top characteristics you value in a distributor? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.