February 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

One Voice

Content management systems address the challenge of making one data pipeline serve content to three channels.

As national manager of corporate e-commerce at Sears Canada Inc., Paul Cathcart has the task of creating a “single visual voice” for the retailer’s store, catalog and online operations. The challenge, he says, is to develop consistent web-based content that can be used across channels for a 52-year-old company with a legacy of catalogs and brick-and-mortar stores and a 10-year-old web site that is evolving hourly. “It’s a work in progress,” Cathcart says.

Sears Canada is not alone among retailers in its quest to use the same content across channels. Many multi-channel retailers are realizing that in a fiercely competitive retail environment characterized by high costs and slim margins, using a web-based central source for graphics, text and specifications to manage content can cut merchandising and marketing costs.

Staff savings

Many small to mid-size retailers have separate systems for e-commerce, accounting, customer service, and inventory, says Ali Jani, senior vice president of product management at Everest Software. Not only does that make the data difficult to find when needed, it creates staffing inefficiencies. “They’ll hire bodies to do nothing more than keeping these systems in sync,” he says. “For an organization to be scalable, you have to have a system that covers the entire spectrum.”

Indeed, car audio retailer Select Products saves about $20,000 annually by using a single web-based database as the source for content on the company’s web site and catalogs, says, CEO Robert Garza. That’s because an employee no longer has to enter information on new products or specification in both the accounting software and the web database.

Sears Canada also was looking for efficiencies when it set up its web-based multi-channel content repository. Previously, the retailer had to take different photos of products for use in stores, catalogs and online. But with a central database, the channels can coordinate their efforts. “Taking one or two shots that will cover all three is better than taking three individual shots,” Cathcart says.

But using the same web-based content across channels can do more than just cut costs. It also can give retailers a competitive edge with the rapidly expanding population of multi-channel consumers. “Consumers are increasingly using multi-channels to make a purchase decision,” says Tamara Mendelsohn, analyst with Forrester Research Inc. She notes that 54% of online consumers research a product online before buying it offline, and 37% research a product in a store environment and then go on line to buy it.

Make it easy

Retailers who use different content for each channel make it harder for consumers to find the same product, often creating an unsatisfactory shopping experience that can lead customers to jump to another site, Mendelsohn says.

“Catalogs are a huge driver of online sales,” she says. “If a consumer browses a catalog but then goes online to make the purchase, the ability to quickly find the product they identified through the catalog is very important.”

Adds Mark Fraser, general manager of content services at T4G Ltd.: “The moment customer expectations are not met, it gives them an opportunity, a reason, an excuse to go elsewhere,” he says.

Indeed, content management is becoming a key means of differentiation for leading e-retailers. 43% of best-in-class retailers enter product information into one system and move it electronically to other channel systems, according to a recent report from Aberdeen Group.

From one, to many

Multi-channel retailers take several approaches to creating a single web-based content management repository, according to Forrester. Most use web content management as a central source for product data and content-an aggregation point from which they can push content into multiple channels-or as a feed into an external product data repository that normalizes and aggregates both structured and unstructured data centrally, allowing output for various channels.

A third common model is for retailers to integrate a web content management solution with a commerce platform that serves as a central source for product data.

Select Products-which sells about 2,500 car-audio related products through catalogs and online-enters changes in content into its accounting software, where the information is automatically pulled by Everest and pushed instantly to the retailer’s web site, Garza says.

Centralized staff

The retailer, which develops its own products, shoots images and creates all the content for its catalogs and web in-house.

At Sears Canada, which has a coast-to-coast catalog business, the content on the web site is primarily driven by the catalog platform, Cathcart says. Sears sends the content-developed by buyers and marketers within the various business lines-to a single repository of content maintained by a third-party company. From there, content management firm T4G assembles the content in the different channels based on instructions from Sears, he says.

But just as important as a central repository for content is having a single group create content for each of the channels, T4G’s Fraser says. “From a content creation point of view, it results in things being more consistent,” he says.

That’s not to say that content should be identical across channels. “Just because the content needs to be the same doesn’t mean the ways that consumers interact with it are going to be the same,” Mendelsohn says. “Sitting at your PC at home is a very different experience than standing in front of a kiosk in the store.”

Consumers also have different expectations for what content they expect to find in the various channels, Fraser says. “If I’m looking at a sweater in a print catalog, I’m perfectly happy with that sweater being on a model and in a stack showing the other colors the sweater comes in,” he says. “But online, I might expect to see how that color actually looks on that particular sweater-a clickable swatch, for instance.”

Adding complexity

Retailers need to take full advantage of tools for displaying content in each channel, Fraser says. “If you have a catalog page that has 15 or 20 items on it, your real estate is limited for how many bullet points you can put for item descriptions,” he says. “Online, you could use ten because the interface allows for there to be more rich descriptions of the items.”

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