June 3, 2013, 1:16 PM

Paint by data

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These changes have prompted more e-retailers to consider implementing PIM to keep data uniform. "Interest level is high," says Tim Toews, a senior consultant with FitForCommerce, an e-commerce consultancy. He says clients have brought up PIM in just about every project he's worked on in the last year or so. In some instances, FitForCommerce has evaluated multiple stand-alone PIM technologies on clients' behalf, and in other instances, it has recommended a retailer go with an e-commerce platform with PIM or PIM-like capabilities built in.

Prices for PIM can creep up as retailers add modules and capabilities to a base system, challenging retailers to justify the return on investment. Toews says one enterprise system he evaluated for a retailer doing more than $100 million in sales priced out at just less than $500,000. A retailer doing $15 million in sales using a hosted PIM model could spend $150,000, he says. "It can get to be a pretty big number," he says, especially for a system that's not directly interfacing with shoppers.

Toews says multichannel retailers or web-only retailers selling through multiple online channels may be able to make a case for the expense. "The more robust your publishing requirements are, be that a feed to another web site, a flier, catalog or data sets you need to distribute, those help with the ROI," Toews says. For a web-only retailer whose e-commerce platform has good merchandising features, he says, "the ROI would be much more difficult to obtain."

Hunt concurs. "If you are a smaller retailer and you've got a limited product set, there isn't much pain in managing that limited product set," he says. "The pain comes though when that product set grows, when it is needed in multiple versions or languages and you need to multiply the channels you send that through."

A PIM wasn't the right solution for Crescent Electric Supply Co., an electrical hardware distributor with 140 locations in the United States and a consumer-facing e-commerce site at Cesco.com. (It will launch a b2b e-commerce site in August.) The distributor, with more than 200,000 SKUs and more added daily, implemented a PIM at the end of 2011, and used it with mixed results for six months. The distributor did not identify the PIM supplier.

Ultimately, Crescent decided it would be better off with a homegrown application that taps into its enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, an accounting package that holds information such as inventory and material prices. It phased the commercial PIM system out completely by December 2012, says Mike Mayer, Crescent Electric Supply's e-commerce director.

"We found the system to be non-intuitive and cumbersome," he says. For example, the abbreviation CMP is commonly used in the electrical category to mean "compression," and it appeared in more than 1,000 product listings. The PIM didn't allow Crescent Electric to run a search-and-replace to change that phrasing. "You had to edit it 1,000 times," he says.

Mayer says he thinks the PIM Crescent used was better suited to retailers with a lot of established products and content, where tasks are more about tweaking and optimizing, rather than adding lots of entirely new products. "If you are bringing on a lot of new products like we were, it didn't support that."

The homegrown data management program Crescent wrote also ties store and warehouse inventory together within its ERP. As a result, when the b2b site goes live this summer its business buyers will be able to see live inventory levels available at local Crescent stores, and pricing per business account—all things that Mayer believes would have been tough to implement on the PIM Crescent had tried. "Writing to our database was just better for us," he says.

Avon and Crescent illustrate how retailers today are finding their own approaches to best manage the data that lets them paint the most complete and accurate picture for consumers. It appears there's no one answer that's right for all.



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