Like ordering sample parts over the web, without paying a fee or having a salesman contact you? If so, enjoy it while it lasts.
Facing an increase in Internet orders, a growing number of electronic component manufacturers and distributors are tightening up their sampling policies, charging for parts that a few years ago would have been free-like switches. Though they are inexpensive parts, often ranging from a few cents to a couple bucks, engineers often order several different types at once, thereby running up the bill significantly. Shipping charges can run up to $35 or more.
Free samples are still available, but the growing number of requests for them over the web is prompting a closer look at who's getting them and how many units they receive. Both E-Switch and NKK Switches of America Inc. ship roughly 500 sample orders out each month. "That's nearly doubled since we began offering samples on the Web," says John Benson, Sr., marketing and sales vice president at E-Switch, a switch manufacturer headquartered in Brooklyn Park, MN.
Most samples are shipped free of charge, but now not without some form of vetting to ensure there is the potential for a high-volume contract. Both companies are struggling to come up with a way of identifying and charging so-called gadget freaks.
Omron Electronics Inc., a Schaumburg, IL-based component manufacturer, used to give samples to customers who asked for them or when it had new technology it wanted to promote. But a couple years ago, when Omron added the Omron Sample Store to its on-line catalog, that changed.
"We charge for samples ordered on the Web," says Mark Lewis, E-commerce manager at Omron. He explained that charges are levied since the parts aren't handled through conventional channels, where costs could be more easily absorbed.
It's a small, but growing, trend. Charging for samples is still rare, even at Omron, where Internet orders only account for 5-10% of the samples shipped each month. Samples ordered through Omron's traditional sales channels are generally shipped for free.
Established customers aren't likely to see any changes, but newcomers, startups, and engineers who want anonymity are finding that it's not always possible to simply type their request on the screen, hit send, then wait for a shipment.
"Most engineers will say it's getting tougher to get samples," says Art Pierard, sales and marketing vice president at Mouser Electronics Inc., an electronics distributor based in Mansfield, TX. While Web ordering still helps engineers avoid contacting a salesman, that convenience is quickly being offset by requests to register, additional charges, and even calls to engineers to verify that there is potential for high-volume business.
Though the clamps are tightening, Internet ordering of samples continues apace. "Sampling and prototype activity remains very strong. There's a lot of design activity out there," says Steven Tsukichi, marketing vice president at Digi-Key Corp.
Some manufacturers are trying to reduce the number of sample and prototype shipments they process themselves by turning them over to distributors. It costs nearly as much to process and prepare a shipment with a few samples as it does to handle a good-sized order. And shipping charges can run anywhere from $16 to $35 per order, says Lewis. Some manufacturers simply don't want to mess with too many small orders.
"We do shift small orders (under 50 or so) to distributors," says Kiyoko Toyama, president of NKK, a Japanese switch manufacturer headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ. The company currently averages 500 to 600 Internet orders for switch samples per month and says it's not cost effective to handle them all.
Many distributors will offer free shipping, but they're much more likely than manufacturers to charge for the parts themselves. But distributors note that even when engineers pay single-unit prices, inventory and handling for a couple switches is likely to turn the order into a losing proposition.
So why do companies bother with samples at all? Easy: Samples are the lifeblood of the business, leading to long-term contracts.