August 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

Struggling with Juggling

As their offerings grow, web retailers face the challenge of keeping product data timely, relevant and available in a nanosecond

When it was a smaller e-commerce site with $5.4 million in annual sales and 16,000 SKUs, managing the text, images and other content for about 1,000 product pages was a relatively easy job for The Grill Store and More, which operates

But as The Grill Store and More works to transform into, a new online mega-store that will eventually carry more than 9 million SKUs, the company is scrambling to keep up with a growing list of content management challenges.

To build a new mass merchandise site that The Grill Store and More believes will give serious competition to and others, the company is upgrading an internally developed content management system that in short order must handle millions of new lines of code and a library of nearly 10 million product images. The Grill Store and More is also spending more than $200,000 on programming and web development to convert reams of new product descriptions, price sheets and merchandise photos into one central information repository.

A variety of feeds

“We have product information coming in to us from 300 manufacturers using a variety of formats-some send us an XML feed, some an e-mail with an attached spreadsheet or PDF and even some on a diskette,” says The Grill Store and More CEO Michael Hackley. “I need an army of programmers to meet our content management objectives.”

Finding newer and better ways to manage and deliver content is a top priority for The Grill Store and More as well as for many other web retailers as they look to upgrade or replace home-grown systems and outdated content delivery programs with more robust applications capable of handling more complex and information-intensive e-commerce sites. Just five years ago, before sophisticated online shoppers began demanding access to more product information and the ability to see merchandise in greater detail, most content delivery and web publishing applications were built to manage relatively straightforward information such as a price, a short item description or a product image.

But today web retailers must manage information across a wider variety of channels, including the web, catalog and stores. To handle the load, they are putting in place sophisticated content management systems that utilize XML applications, web services and virtual data repositories. In addition, web retailers are updating their content delivery platforms to handle a growing volume of outside information posted directly to the web store from third-party information providers or consumer brand manufacturers.

The end result for Internet merchants are platforms and programs that can react quickly and precisely to match changing shopper behavior and to personalize content in ways that generate more sales.

Just enough information

With early content management programs, web retailers often had to code each piece of text or image before posting it to the site. To create programs that pulled content such as pricing and available inventory from back-end databases and legacy systems, retailers also needed their information technology and web development staffs to create custom source code, a separate project that could take weeks to plan and execute.

“The early generation of content management systems were built around supplying the e-commerce site with just enough information such as a price, descriptive text and product image to get the customer to use the shopping cart and then complete the transaction,” says Monica Schrager, senior strategic analyst with Fry Inc., an e-commerce web site developer. “But now that web retailing sites are carrying far more products and related information, content management systems and tools are evolving to an entirely new level.”

Today, content management application development and third-party content delivery companies such as Astoria Software Inc., Ektron Inc., FatWire Corp., Fry, Interwoven Inc., Stellent Inc., WebCollage Inc., Vignette Corp. and others are building and marketing new tools or services that feature an open architecture, multiple page templates and formats, reusable business objects, XML editing tools and a central data repository. Many new systems also feature a graphical user interface that allows multiple retailing managers to use their personal computers and an Internet connection to enter or change content using simple drop-and-drag tools. Others feature dashboards that allow users to select editing or publishing tools, and click and move the dashboard across multiple web pages and templates.

Pricing for an enterprise content management system can range from about $25,000 to more than $200,000, depending upon the number of users and product features. FatWire, for instance, charges an entry price of $25,000 for Content Server, its core content management suite of applications, while Vignette’s price for Vignette V7, a content management system that lets retailers manage text and images using Microsoft Office, web browsers, XML authoring tools and wireless devices, starts at $75,000. “Many web retailers used to find some content management systems too complex and too time-consuming to really use effectively,” says Marci Maddox, Vignette’s senior manager of product marketing. “What they really needed, and what they are finding in content management products on the market today, are web-based tools that let them edit text or images and make instant changes across various channels or web sites, intranets or extranets.”

Greater role

When content management systems were first developed and deployed across e-commerce sites about a decade ago, web retailers used the tools primarily to post or change text and images on the home page and a few interior product pages. But today content management tools are taking on a far different role and helping merchants identify and close more sales by delivering timely and personalized product information to shoppers.

For instance, Benchmark Brands, which sells online at, an e-commerce site that carries about 16,000 products and generates annual sales of more than $17 million, uses new rich media applications from Scene7 Inc. to let shoppers zoom in on particular products such as specialty or therapeutic socks and hosiery and click on color swatches. Over time Benchmark Brands has also updated its internally developed and maintained content management system with new features that enable marketing managers to package product text, images and articles on foot care to specific groups of shoppers such as customers looking for deals and tips on selecting a pair of walking shoes.

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