Wholesale vs Retail: Understanding the Differences

Wholesale and retail differ in many ways, but both play crucial roles in bringing products from manufacturers to end users.

Wholesale and retail are two distinct stages of product distribution. Wholesale involves selling goods in large volumes to retailers, often at discounted prices. On the other hand, retail consists of selling goods directly to consumers, typically in smaller quantities.

A wholesale license lets wholesalers purchase bulk from manufacturers at a low price. Wholesale pricing is usually lower than retail pricing, but retailers don’t have minimum order quantity (MOQ) like wholesalers.

Wholesale and retail stores enable the efficient distribution of goods, ensuring a steady supply.

Comparison table for wholesale and retail

Here’s a comparison table outlining the main differences between wholesale and retail:

MeaningSale of goods in large quantities to retailers, businesses, or other intermediaries.Sale of goods in smaller quantities directly to the end consumer.
BuyersBusinesses, retailers, or other intermediaries.Individuals and Small-And-Midsize-Businesses.
QuantityBulk or large quantities of goods.Smaller quantities or per unit.
PricingLower prices per unit due to bulk purchases.Higher prices per unit to cover costs and generate profit.
Minimum Order Size
Often requires minimum order quantities.
No minimum order requirements.
PackagingGeneric or plain packaging for easy distribution.Attractive and consumer-oriented packaging.
MarketingFocused on building relationships with businesses and intermediaries.Focused on attracting individual consumers through advertising and promotions.
Sales ChannelsPrimarily B2B (Business-to-Business) sales channels.Primarily B2C (Business-to-Consumer) sales channels.
Customer ServiceLess emphasis on personalized service.Emphasis on personalized service and customer experience.
Inventory Management
Often larger inventories to meet demand from various retailers.
Smaller inventories to cater to individual consumer needs.
Table of comparison: Wholesales and retail – Overview

These are general differences, and there may be exceptions or variations depending on specific industries or contexts.

The origin of wholesale and retail

Retail and wholesale have existed for centuries, making it challenging to identify the exact story of each business model. 

However, ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt had already implemented the concept of wholesale. They had merchants specialized in bulk trading, facilitating the exchange of goods between producers and retailers, forming the foundation of wholesale commerce.

Early forms of retail can be seen in ancient marketplaces, such as the agora in ancient Greece and bazaars in the Middle East, where merchants sold goods directly to consumers in a face-to-face transactional setting.

Examples of popular wholesalers and retailers

Here are three examples of wholesale companies and three examples of retail businesses:

Wholesale Companies Examples

Costco Wholesale Corporation is a multinational retail company that operates a chain of membership-based warehouse clubs. Costco is the largest wholesale supplier in the US and the third largest worldwide.

Sysco Corporation is one of the largest foodservice distributors in the world, specializing in distributing food and related products to restaurants, healthcare facilities, educational institutions, and other hospitality businesses.

Alibaba Group is a Chinese conglomerate that operates various online platforms, including Alibaba.com, which facilitates wholesale trade between businesses worldwide.

Warehouse vs local market

Retail Businesses Examples

Walmart is one of the world’s prominent retail corporations, operating a chain of hypermarkets, discount department stores, and grocery stores. According to the Statista website, Walmart is the largest retailer in the US, with retail sales of $499.65 billion in 2022.

Amazon is an e-commerce giant that started as an online book marketplace and expanded to sell various products. It operates both as an online retailer and a platform for third-party sellers.

Zara is a global fashion retailer known for its fast-fashion business model. The company designs, manufactures, and sells clothing-related items directly to consumers through physical stores and online channels.

These examples are for illustrative purposes, and there are numerous other wholesale companies and retail businesses across different industries.

The roles of a wholesaler and a retailer in the supply chain

Here’s a comparison between the roles of a wholesaler and a retailer in the supply chain.

Role of wholesalers

Wholesalers act as a mediator between the manufacturer and the retailer. Wholesalers purchase products in bulk quantity from the manufacturer for a lower price and sell them to retailers by keeping their profit margin.

They have a direct affiliation with the manufacturer and sell only specific items. Wholesalers are less interested in shop location, packaging, and display of the goods. They focus more on the quantity than the quality of a product. 

Wholesalers focus more on inventory, transportation, and distribution. Here are the roles of a wholesaler in the supply chain:

  • Acquires products in bulk quantities from manufacturers or distributors.
  • Stores and manages inventory in warehouses or distribution centers.
  • Offer various products to retailers and businesses.
  • Provide logistical support, including transportation and storage.
  • May offer value-added services such as packaging, labeling, and product customization.
  • Sell products in large quantities to retailers, businesses, or other wholesalers.
  • Focuses on establishing relationships with manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.
  • Acts as an intermediary between the manufacturer and the retailer in the supply chain.

Roles of retailers

Retailers are the final link between the product and the customer. They acquire goods from wholesalers and sell them to the customer in the market. Retailers have to be more familiar with selling and advertisement tactics. 

They must focus on location and customer service to successfully operate the business. Retailers sell goods to the end-users at higher rates and in limited quantities. They have higher operational costs per unit and must attract customers through promotion and an attractive display of goods. 

Retailers might prioritize specific sales channels over others. Here are the roles of a retailer in the supply chain:

  • Purchase products from wholesalers, manufacturers, or distributors.
  • Stores and displays products in brick-and-mortar stores, online platforms, or both.
  • Offer a curated selection of products to end consumers.
  • Provide customer service, product knowledge, and a personalized shopping experience.
  • Set retail prices based on operating costs, marketing, and profit margins.
  • Sell products in smaller quantities directly to end consumers for personal use or consumption.
  • Establish relationships with customers to foster brand loyalty and repeat business.
  • Focus on understanding consumer preferences and demand to optimize product offerings.

In the supply chain, wholesalers are middlemen between manufacturers and retailers. They enable manufacturers to reach a broader market by efficiently distributing products to retailers and businesses. Wholesalers provide economies of scale, lower prices, and logistical support.  

On the other hand, retailers focus on meeting consumer demands. Marketing via multiple sales channels, product display, and accessibility are essential to attract clients. 

Here is a simple table outlining the four stages of the product distribution:

ProducerCreates the products, often in large quantities.
WholesalerBuys bulk from producers, stores them, and sells them to retailers.
RetailerBuys in bulk from producers, stores them, and sells them to retailers.
ConsumerBuys products from retailers for personal use.
The 4 stages of product distribution

Overall, wholesalers and retailers have distinct but interdependent functions in the supply chain. They work together to ensure products are efficiently distributed from manufacturers to end consumers.

Histories of wholesale and retail business – Overview

The History of the Retail Business

Ancient Rome is credited with the establishment of the first enduring retail hubs, known as forums. The specifics remain elusive while there are indications of similar commercial centers in ancient China.

As urbanization and trade grew, permanent shops emerged, introducing fixed prices. The Industrial Revolution brought mechanized production and more prominent retail outlets. The digital age ushered in e-commerce and online shopping, revolutionizing retail. 

Today, retail adapts to changing consumer preferences and leverages technology for personalized experiences. The future holds further transformations driven by new technologies and sustainable practices.

According to IBISWorld, 686,179 Wholesale Trade businesses are located in the US as of 2023.

The History of the Wholesale Business – Overview

Wholesale Business has a rich history. It plays a significant role in goods distribution and economic growth.

From ancient trade routes to the Industrial Revolution and the digital age, wholesalers have connected producers and retailers. Guilds and associations facilitated fair practices in the Middle Ages. 

The Industrial Revolution introduced mass production and transportation networks, expanding the reach of wholesalers. The digital age brought e-commerce, streamlining procurement. Today, wholesalers range from small distributors to multinational corporations. 

Chicago, the hub of American trade, saw the first US-based wholesale stores, with key players like John G. Shedd and Marshall Field. The wholesale landscape transformed with Sol Price’s Costco in 1976, pioneering the wholesale club concept.

By 2010, three major wholesale clubs with over 500 warehouses spanned the US and beyond. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics1,045,422 retail establishments across the US as of 2020.

Retail workforce vs wholesale workforce

According to the Census Bureau, back in 2018, there were around 9.8 million retail workers across the United States. In 2022, the Wholesale Trade workforce was about 1.7 million workers. 

Retail Workforce

  • The retail industry employs a large and diverse workforce, including sales associates, cashiers, managers, visual merchandisers, and customer service representatives.
  • Retail workers directly interact with customers, providing assistance, processing transactions, and ensuring a positive shopping experience.
  • Depending on the retailer’s business model, the workforce is typically spread across various store locations, both brick-and-mortar and online.
  • Retail employees often work flexible schedules, including weekends, evenings, and holidays, to meet the demands of consumer shopping patterns.
  • Training and development programs are common in retail to enhance product knowledge, customer service skills, and sales techniques.
  • The retail workforce can experience high turnover due to seasonal employment, part-time work, and career mobility.

Wholesale Workforce

  • The wholesale industry also employs a diverse workforce of sales representatives, distribution and logistics professionals, purchasing managers, and operations staff.
  • To facilitate the supply chain, wholesale workers build relationships with manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.
  • Centralization in distribution centers or regional offices to manage inventory, logistics, and order fulfillment.
  • Wholesale employees often work regular business hours, Monday to Friday, with less emphasis on evening or weekend shifts than retail.
  • Wholesale professionals need training and expertise in supply chain management, negotiation, and market analysis.
  • The wholesale workforce may experience higher specialization and industry-specific knowledge due to their role in the broader supply chain.


While retail and wholesale employ a range of professionals, the nature of their work and focus areas differ. Retail workers primarily engage directly with customers, delivering a personalized shopping experience.

On the other hand, wholesale workers focus on supply chain management, distribution, and building relationships with other business entities.

Retail workers are dispersed across various store locations, while the wholesale workforce is often concentrated in distribution centers. Additionally, retail employment may have more flexibility in scheduling, but wholesale occupation usually follows standard business hours.

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