May 23, 2002, 12:00 AM

The Source of Truth

Less is definitely more with databases that manage product images and descriptions.

For most retailers, the management of product descriptions and images used to be easy. Catalogers needed sharp photos with brief descriptions to print in catalogs. Chain stores needed medium quality photos with very little description for circulars and newspaper ads and sharper photos but still with little description for store displays.

But the Internet has changed all that. For starters, by making multi-channel retailing a requirement, the web forces all retailers to provide a great deal of information. For another, the web can contain a lot more information than any other medium and the most successful retailers provide great depth of information on their web sites. 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.

“The web changes significantly the information you need,” says Chuck Coleman, director of product system support for office supply retailer Corporate Express Inc. “On the web you have 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?’”

The trip-up

The challenge, then, is making best use of the data that exist. And that’s where many retail operations trip up. The e-commerce group could be in charge of the information that goes to the web while the catalog group would oversee the content that flows into the page make-up programs for printing and the store signage managers would have control of the information for store display. And they all reside in their own data systems. “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 ‘This is my space, don’t mess with my signage department.’ ”

Some vendors, though, are realizing an opportunity exists in helping retailers make sense of their disparate systems and have created programs that output the content to whatever format a retailer wants, whether it be web, catalog, brochures or signs. Participants include companies that are coming at it from a print background, such as Pindar Systems, an offshoot of European printer Pindar plc; an online content management background and adding the print component, such as Trigo Technologies Inc.; or as a provider of broader merchandise management solutions, such as Evant Solutions Inc. (see box, p. 41). “Most of our clients end up re-cutting the same product information over and over,” Heimes says. “Retailers need to build it once and make it flexible enough to be used for all their needs.”

Data needs go up

Privately held U.K. catalog merchant Littlewoods is one retailer that understands the need to re-use content. Littlewoods sells 24,000 products with 100,000 SKUs through a 1,200-page catalog that it creates twice a year and which it calls the All Inclusive catalog, as well as through auxiliary catalogs called the Extra catalog and Index catalog and sales and end-of-season closeout brochures. It also operates three web sites that sell the same merchandise as the catalogs. For 12 years, Littlewoods has done catalog production in-house, so it has an extensive understanding of the catalog process.

But Littlewoods found that its need for data went up very quickly when it added the web site. For instance, images were a problem. “All the photos for the books were done in a spread,” says David Fleming, Littlewoods’ IT publishing manager. “So if we had a toy spread, a group of toys would be put on a table and a picture taken. Or if we did jewelry, all the different types of rings, or necklaces or bracelets would be put on one board for a picture. That didn’t work on the web, where we want to sell each item individually. We had to cut each image into 25 separate images.”

And so the web managers had to start thinking about each product as an individual product with product attributes, he says. That resulted in each product having its own picture and many fields of data. And it resulted in managers realizing that the data already existed within the company and it was foolish to re-create it for web use. “They realized quickly they needed a feed from the publishing system because that’s where we had all the information,” Fleming says. To provide that feed, Littlewoods is installing the new Agility product from Chicago-based Pindar Systems, which creates a single database for all product content.

As the experience with product photos shows, Littlewoods, like other retailers, found its need for product information going up as its channels multiplied. Photos, for instance, suddenly need to be available in a number of formats for both web and print use. Similarly, product information spans the range from everything you ever wanted to know for web site use, to description, size, color, and price for catalogs, to three or four words and price for ad circulars. Furthermore, the amount of data in a description explodes as the web creates shopping experiences that consumers never had before or streamlines previously cumbersome processes. “We are getting all the attributes of products plugged in so consumers can do side-by-side comparisons,” Coleman says. Corporate Express is using Trigo technology to manage its web database and is exploring ways to use Trigo to create a single database for electronic and print.

Creating consistency

A centralized database makes managing all the data easier, by having a single “source of truth,” in the words of Russ Henry, senior vice president of marketing for Trigo. By reducing the need to re-input and re-format the data it reduces the need for production staff, which retailers often fill on a temp basis. And it permits the same shopping experience across channels. “It allows us to create consistent presentation of data to the customer,” Coleman says. “Customers who are used to looking at products in your catalog expect to see products presented in a certain way, whether it’s in the catalog or on the web. This will allow us to do that upfront, rather than going back and correcting the web once the catalog is out.”

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