The Cloud offers distributors a silver lining for managing product information

By Colin Wells, Pimberly.

Consumers have more choice and make greater demands than ever before. More products, more channels through which to buy them, more ways to take delivery. But as distributors, more choice means more complexity and more data to manage.

For distributors who sit in the middle of complex supply chains, there is a real challenge in being able to manage increasing volumes of high quality, rich and consistent product information and media across multiple feeds and channels.

It's not uncommon to be holding information on more than 100,000 products at any one time. And with potentially 150 attributes for each item – that's a lot of data to handle!

That's why Product Information Management has become business critical for distributors and a real differentiator when it comes to updating and processing data quickly and error free. But while there are a number of large legacy platforms out there to manage product information, cloud-based platforms have emerged as the most scalable, flexible and hassle-free solution for managing rich media and data.

Old-school methods

Before the term 'big data' entered our everyday language most organisations used time-intensive manual processes such as Excel to keep track of their ever-expanding product data bank – in reality many still do. But given the complexities involved in product information management and the possibility of human error this just isn't robust or fool-proof enough for today's distributors.

At the other end of the spectrum distributors have tried to squeeze every last drop of functionality out of their ERP systems, keen to maximise the return on investment on what can be costly software. But these solutions were never built with product information management or rich media in mind and it will be a long time before ERP vendors can incorporate this into their offering without needing to overhaul the entire system.

Enter PIM

Providing a crucial link between distributors and suppliers, PIM (product information management) platforms have emerged as a key way of ensuring that product information is consistent and accurate across all channels – including ecommerce websites, social media and print.

Distributors typically find themselves handling many hundreds if not thousands of suppliers each with varying levels of data quality. Equally, they need to consider the many thousands of customers who, again, have various data requirements. Supplying great product information to all of these people, on both sides, is becoming a necessity and a real value added differentiator. With that in mind, for distributors dealing with a high volume of feeds and channels, the core benefits of PIM are two-fold. The first is the ease and speed with which content can be pushed out in a variety of forms to numerous channels, as well as providing the opportunity to enrich this content to perform well in ecommerce. The second major benefit is the clear user interface, which makes managing large numbers of incoming 'feeds' more straight-forward – your PIM consolidates product information from many different locations, into one.

Aside from the benefits above, PIM tools also significantly reduce the burden on man-hours as product information updates are done automatically across the organisation. And with a new generation of cloud-based PIM solutions, implementation times and maintenance costs are also coming down.

These (Software as a Service) SaaS tools act as both a data enricher and a communicator. PIM connects disparate internal systems with one single source of information – a 'golden record' of the product, if you will. This ensures that the correct product information is fed into each system and across all departments, and that it can be updated automatically.

PIM also helps distributors iron out the inconsistencies often found in the descriptions of SKUs across different channels. These inconsistencies can happen for various reasons – perhaps due to language translations or measurements being listed in imperial values instead of the metric system.

Distributors do still need to have variation in how a SKU is described. For example, you may want a shorter version shown on mobile phones to improve the browsing experience. PIM's golden record, however, ensures that regardless of whether a description is required for your own website, a customer's website, eBay, Amazon, search engines or print material, the core information is always consistent.

Staying one step ahead

Developers of the latest PIM solutions lean towards cloud-based or Software as a Service (SaaS) options, because they offer the same security as on-premise tools, but provide a greater level of scalability and flexibility. As well as being easy to use they can also be deployed in a fraction of the time of traditionally installed software.

This is crucial when it comes to keeping pace. Historically, distributors have found it difficult to add new products quickly. Fast moving industries, like fashion, struggle if they aren't able to get something listed for a customer swiftly. But SaaS-based PIM solutions also make a real difference in this area as a 45 day turnaround process can now be reduced to 10 days. Workflows are automated and can flag when actions are required from certain departments. For example, if there is a price attribute query, an automatic note would be sent to the pricing department. If this isn't picked up by the right person within a specified period, an alert can then ask a manager to step in.

This is a huge differentiator. Making products available through any number of channels quickly is a must to ensure that a distributor can deliver – and doesn't risk retailers and manufacturers choosing a different (faster) partner in the future.

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