April 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Hello Central

When it comes to product data, everyone’s gotta sing out of the same hymnal.

For a few years, e-retailer AllergyBuyersClub.com chugged along just fine on the product content management system it had set up when the site launched in 1999. With few products and only a few employees, the retailer’s merchants populated the web site based on the descriptions, cost, availability and other data received on each item with the help of IT staff. Then each merchant stored the data individually, in an electronic file or even a file drawer.

But by 2002, with sales in the range of $3 million, more products and more employees, the e-retailer determined it was time to centralize product data in the name of greater efficiency. “When we added more salespeople we needed a place for them to access information, rather than having them have to go ask somebody,” says David Barnaby, vice president of merchandising.

Where’s the budget?

Among e-retailers, product content is “the bane of everyone’s existence,“ asserts Jay Heavilon, president of marketing and technology services company ARS eCommerce LLC. “Everybody knows they need product content, and that it needs to be good, to be robust, but nobody puts any budget toward it.” At many retailers, he says, having a top-flight central repository for product data competes for resources with other priorities, like having the newest, coolest, shopping tools.

But getting product data together and keeping it organized is the foundation of online selling. And it’s no small task. With product data arriving from suppliers in formats ranging from text descriptions to photos to actual samples, and different groups within the retail organization needing to use and alter it for different purposes, retaining data consistency across the organization becomes a challenge.

Plenty of dedicated product information management systems will manage the complex process of gathering, storing, and updating product data while ensuring consistency across different users, but it generally takes volume to justify the cost.

For example, Sears Holdings Corp.’s The Great Indoors outsources management of the product content database for the 25,000 products on its web site to vendor ARS. The vendor gets the data from the retailer’s suppliers, and keeps it organized in a product information management system, formatted, updated and ready for the retailer’s merchants to put on the site or push out to other online venues like affiliate sites and feeds to shopping engines, according to Lindsey Dunn, divisional merchandise manager at Sears, who oversees merchandising at The Great Indoors.

Dunn doesn’t say what The Great Indoors pays for the solution, but ARS’s pricing structure charges retailers $10 to $110 or more per SKU depending on the depth and complexity of information associated with each SKU it manages and the number of SKUs involved, according to Heavilon. With information on 25,000 products in its database, a fully automated, outsourced product content database solution makes sense for The Great Indoors, but other retailers don’t operate on that scale.

People power

Where e-retailers can’t support purchasing a solution to the problem, they take a DIY approach that depends on people power. For example, with about 600 products from 100 suppliers, AllergyBuyersClub.com now stores product information in a database attached to its Windows operating system. Suppliers send product information to their assigned contact at the retailer via e-mail; those merchants work with their information technology staff to populate the web site with it, and the information is then stored in the database.

Any updates-a price change, for instance-are first pushed to the web site by the merchant who gets that information from the supplier. The changes are then recorded, along with the date, in a central electronic file elsewhere in the system, then communicated in an e-mail to merchant and executive staff. According to Barnaby, changes to product data are so frequent that this method is more efficient than constantly changing the product database itself, something that requires I.T. intervention.

Justifying automation

That system works for Allergy Buyers Club, but Barnaby sees a time when continued growth might require a more automated solution. As with any resource decision, the company will then have to balance that need against cost. “It might get to a point where there might be something out there, in terms of price, that justifies it,” he says. “With some of these software systems there is always something better and less expensive down the road.”

With 6,000 products on its web site, home and auto electronics retailer Crutchfield Corp. manages product data using a homegrown, central repository. A team enters the data, which they’ve gleaned from what vendors send as well as their own examination of the product and their own research. According to Rick Souder, executive vice president of merchandising, the centralized raw data is accessed by merchants who populate the web site, as well as those who create the company’s paper catalogs, Crutchfield’s call center sales reps, and technical support staff. All of them can add their own notes to the database if they’d be useful in resolving tech support questions or questions to call center reps.

Any inconsistencies in what’s recorded in the database by its multiple users-for instance, descriptions geared toward the needs of the catalog, where products must be described more succinctly than on the web, which has more space-are caught and resolved by staff, rather than by an automated function, through multiple reviews and attention to detail.

Tried and true

Wine.com has considered fully automated product content management systems in the past. But given the business rules the company must follow as the seller of a regulated product, founder Mike Osborn says he’s never found anything that would work for the company as well as the system it started out with, which uses the database built onto the Microsoft platform it launched on 11 years ago. Wine.com uses it to record product information for about 8,000 wines. The company has the equivalent of three full-time staff members managing the product database, and the web site derives all of its content from that database.

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