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When consumers purchase goods, they usually buy them from a retail establishment, such as a supermarket, department store, gas station, or Internet site. When retail establishments, other businesses, governments, or institutions—such as universities or hospitals—need to purchase goods for resale, equipment, office supplies, or any other items, they normally buy them from wholesale trade establishments.

Wholesale trade firms are essential to the economy. They buy large lots of goods, usually from manufacturers, and sell them in smaller quantities to businesses, governments, other wholesalers, or institutional customers. They simplify product, payment, and information flows by acting as intermediaries between the manufacturer and the final customer. They store goods that neither manufacturers nor retailers can store until consumers require them. In so doing, they fill several roles in the economy. They provide businesses a nearby source of goods made by many different manufacturers; they provide manufacturers with a manageable number of customers, while allowing their products to reach a large number of users; and they allow manufacturers, businesses, institutions, and governments to devote minimal time and resources to transactions by taking on some sales and marketing functions—such as customer service, sales contact, order processing, and technical support—that manufacturers otherwise would have to perform.

The wholesale trade industry is divided into three sectors: Merchant wholesalers, durable goods; merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods; and wholesale electronic markets and agents and brokers.

Firms in the merchant wholesalers, durable goods sector sell capital or durable goods to other businesses. Merchant wholesalers generally take title to the goods that they sell; in other words, they buy and sell goods on their own account. Durable goods are new or used items that generally have a normal life expectancy of 3 years or more. Establishments in this sector of wholesale trade are engaged in wholesaling durable goods, such as motor vehicles, furniture, construction materials, machinery and equipment (including household appliances), metals and minerals (except petroleum), sporting goods, toys and hobby goods, recyclable materials, and parts.

Firms in the merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods sector sell nondurable goods to other businesses. Nondurable goods are items that generally have a normal life expectancy of less than 3 years. Establishments in this sector of wholesale trade are engaged in wholesaling nondurable goods, such as paper and paper products, chemicals and chemical products, drugs, textiles and textile products, apparel, footwear, groceries, farm products, petroleum and petroleum products, alcoholic beverages, books, magazines, newspapers, flowers and nursery stock, and tobacco products.

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