June 5, 2002, 12:00 AM

How multi-channel retailing radically changes merchants’ data needs

Being multi-channel means a retailer needs product information that can be used in every medium--including newspaper ads and store signs, as well as web sites and possibly even catalogs.

For most retailers, the management of product descriptions and images used to be easy. But the Internet has changed everything, retailers say. Being multi-channel means a retailer needs product information that can be used in every medium. So while a chain store used to need information for newspaper ads and stores signs, today it needs information for those uses plus for web site presentation and possibly even catalogs.

In addition, the web itself requires more information available to customers from a database than retailers are accustomed to providing--the data resided in the heads of store sales associates. "The web changes significantly the information you need," says Chuck Coleman, director of product support systems for office supply retailer Corporate Express Inc. "On the web you have very long descriptions about what the product is all about. A customer has to look at the screen and feel comfortable about placing an order because there`s nobody to ask, `What do you mean by this?`"

Thus retailers today are faced with the challenges of managing reams of information that they didn`t have to deal with at all in the past. And as the various uses of the data grew up independent of one another, the data often are not in a centralized base. "It`s a big challenge to get this information into a database that all can use because it`s in silos now and the people in charge have been doing it the same way for years," says Scott Heimes, president of Virtucom Content Solutions Inc., which provides content for retailers` product databases. "Many have the attitude that This is my space, don`t mess with my signage creation department."

The solution that some retailers are adopting is a move to a single database that contains product descriptions and images for output to all media that a retailer markets in. A number of companies are offering such technology including A2i Inc., Cardonet Inc., Cuesta Technologies Inc., eMarketing Inc. Equilibrium Technologies Inc., Evant Solutions Inc., MediaBin Inc., Pindar Systems, Saqqara Systems Inc. and Trigo Technologies Inc.

The single database approach is just starting, though. "It`s very uncommon," says Heimes, who works with some of the biggest retailers in the U.S., including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy Co. Inc. and Toys R Us Inc. "I know of almost no retailers who are doing it well."

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