Congratulations, you have a growing e-commerce business! Important numbers are up – visitors, sales – way to go!
But wait a second, other numbers seem to be going up as well… Website and cart abandonment? Customer complaints? Returns? And why are conversions declining? That’s not good… what’s going on here?
Perhaps its time to examine a common source of growing pains in the e-commerce business – one that is absolutely necessary, yet has vexed even the savviest of retailers, wholesalers, and distributors: product content.
It could be time to invest in a system to help you cope with all the complexity of product information. We call that a PIM, short for Product Information Management.
In this blog post, we’ll explore some common issues that may indicate a need for PIM. But, before we start, we should mention what PIM is, and what it isn’t.
PIM ≠ Software
First, PIM is not just software. When we talk about “Akeneo PIM” (or any competing product in the marketplace), it’s really shorthand for a PIM Solution. Product Information Management is much broader and includes policies, processes, documentation, reporting, and yes, technology, all of which combine to create a centralized product content ecosystem designed for speed, efficiency, scalability, and very importantly, the ability to serve its data to multiple downstream systems.
In short, PIM enables and simplifies multi-channel commerce.
Any company selling products has to deal with product content. Whether it’s collected from suppliers or produced internally, printed in a catalog or published online, content is a critical component of commerce.
Because adding products and categories is incremental, most online sellers don’t feel much pain when they start with a small product assortment. Dealing with content is easy at first, and that lulls team members into a false sense of security, leading to institutionalized bad habits (read: Excel). However, the problems become evident when they try to scale up or to execute any large-scale data migration or re-platforming.
We typically view product information as anything a customer can see and interact within a digital channel – images, videos, descriptions, attributes, features and benefits, PDFs, etc. Upstream from the digital sales channel, these content elements are associated with product master data – the information we need to buy and sell that product, including brand, UPC, SKU number, category assignments, supplier information, etc.
It’s important to note that, in the world of enterprise software, all things are possible when it comes to data management. At Sitation, we have worked with clients trying to cobble 14 legacy systems together with duct tape and super glue to support their digital channels, others who have gone to extraordinary lengths to build their own modern systems from the ground up, and everything in between. Big companies have big systems, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to PIM. PIM solutions are specialized, but also should be highly flexible and configurable in order to meet a company’s unique requirements.
Please keep in mind your organization’s systems and processes as we talk about 3 big issues that suggest it’s time to invest in PIM.
Issue #1: Data Management Causes Headaches
Selling in a traditional retail or B2B environment means that product information must be acquired, manipulated, and stored for publishing downstream. Most frequently, this requires processes to collect at least basic product information from suppliers, to manipulate it into a format suitable for review, and then pushing it to sales channels for publication.
Probably the most obvious internal sign that you need a PIM is that these processes represent growing costs inside your organization.
Product information management costs become apparent as sellers realize that these product assets are all over the place, causing chaos and inefficiency. Merchants, salespeople, and the marketing team each have their own repositories of product content, including the latest model numbers, descriptions, images, etc., and there is little to no coordination among them to reconcile whose is correct.
A lack of rigorous data governance policies contributes to these headaches. Who is responsible for what step in vendor and product onboarding? Who can change it? How do we know what has been updated? Where are the bottlenecks in the process? Why can’t management get clear visibility into the vendor and product onboarding pipeline?
Adding fuel to the fire, these issues are exacerbated with distributed teams, third-party content providers, and the constant push to add new categories, new products, and new channels, all of which is standard practice in a growing digital organization.
So, what is the underlying theme of these headaches? There is no single source of truth. That is to say, there is no system which contains the latest, most comprehensive, and most accurate version of product information and assets which can confidently be published and distributed to sales channels.
Issue #2: Lack of Agility and Long Lead Times
The immediate consequence of lax data management processes is systemic inefficiency when the use of your product data is required for a particular purpose, such as entering a new channel.
Behold this simple example:
ABC Company and XYZ Company both want to start selling on Amazon, which requires a custom data feed containing brand, model number, product title, images, taxonomy, etc. Both companies are growing, making money, sell similar assortments, and have a similar number of SKUs.
But, ABC Company, which fancies itself scrappy and frugal, is using its own ad-hoc manual processes for product data management, relying heavily on a few key people internally who have built their own individual Excel-based processes to collect and manipulate product information.
XYZ Company, on the other hand, has invested in PIM, and has rigorous controls around the collection, enrichment, storage, and publication of product data.
How do things look for these two companies when it comes time to create data feeds for Amazon?
This hypothetical is meant to illustrate an important point. As your catalog grows, content can become unwieldy, and at some point, a reliance on manual manipulation of product data using ad hoc manual processes becomes a liability to your company. Not only are such processes slow and inefficient, but the lack of documented, trainable, and repeatable data management processes exposes your company to a huge risk if key people leave.
Issue #3: Bad Customer Experiences in Online Channels
Some companies might consider all the above risks tolerable if the end result were the same. That is, they believe the content published to their digital sales channels through ugly ad hoc processes is just as good as that produced by an organization who has invested in PIM.
And they would be wrong. The reason is straightforward: PIM enables a superior customer experience.
Consider the following examples:
Consistency in Product Data
Well-defined category requirements afford the ability to see which products need additional enrichment to meet a minimal quality and completeness standard. When all items in a given category are enriched to 100%, a customer can confidently browse the category with a consistent experience, seeing images, descriptions, and attributes that are needed to make a purchase decision.
Parametric Filters and Product Comparisons
Consistency also means that customers using parametric filters on your websites get accurate results. How many times have you seen the same attribute value represented in several different ways? One inch, 1 inch, 1in. and 1” are all the same value, but your platform doesn’t know that unless you enforce data types and units of measure, a core capability of PIM systems (and a great example of how Excel alone falls short). Effective side-by-side product comparisons are similarly reliant upon clean, normalized data.
Time to Market
In most businesses, the ability to quickly respond to market demand is a critical component of e-commerce success. Customers want the latest products, the newest categories, and the most timely promotions. PIM helps to streamline product data processes, meaning your product is made available for sale sooner.
Different customers have different needs, and a smart seller will find multiple ways to merchandise the same product. Consider an office furniture seller who may sell desks, chairs, and filing cabinets. Products will be categorized into their primary category (e.g. “Desks”), but may also be shopped by collection, brand, or style, each being its own category in the taxonomy. Sitation’s clients who implement alternate taxonomies see significant boosts in sales, but supporting the process adds complexity which is best managed in a centralized system.
Upsells, Cross-Sells, and Bundles
Product to product, product to category, and category to category relationships enable intuitive shopping experiences that can increase average order value (AOV) and lifetime value of the customer (LTVC). These associations should be systematized in the PIM for maximal effectiveness.
Sellers using Endeca, Solr, or other site search engines simply must have great data, or the site search experience will be cumbersome and unhelpful. Among Sitation’s clients, we note that customers who interact with site search convert at 400% higher rates than those who do not. Feed your search clean, normalized data from your PIM and watch the sales climb!
Foreign Language Translations
A simple, practical, and efficient method to create and manage foreign language translations of product information is essential when expanding to international markets. PIM can facilitate this process by providing clean workflows to create, review, and publish your foreign language content.
Caveat Emptor: A PIM System is Not a Silver Bullet
I’ll close this discussion with a reminder of where we started – PIM is not just software. Therefore, companies buying a PIM system should not expect to enjoy all the benefits of PIM without putting in the work necessary to leverage its key features.
Without the rigorous policies and controls around product information, the PIM system will simply become an expensive new home for the same bad data.
Instead, companies preparing for the integration of PIM into their e-commerce stack should follow an implementation roadmap that serves both business and IT. At the very minimum, the roadmap should include a runway for the following key activities:
- Are taxonomies (including a “master” taxonomy containing brands and/or product groups and any downstream catalogs) reviewed, mapped and optimized?
- What content quality requirements will be enforced at go-live for different channels? How are these requirements communicated to merchants, suppliers, and third-party content partners?
- Will suppliers or other third parties require access to the PIM? How will they add new products, and update existing SKUs?
- What reports and KPIs will govern product content processes? How do we measure success?
Only when these questions have been adequately answered, and the implications of the answers effectively integrated into the implementation plan, will a company have the best chance of fully leveraging the capabilities of PIM to address all three of the major pain points identified above: Data Governance, Agility, and Customer Experience.
With PIM running like a well-oiled machine, the enterprise is rewarded with efficiency and scalability in delivering content to downstream channels dependent on clean product information and is free to focus its attention on optimizing the user experience to grow sales and profitability.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Engelbrecht is the President of Sitation, an e-commerce consulting group serving retailers, B2B wholesalers and distributors, and brands.
Headquartered outside Raleigh, NC, Sitation serves dozens of leading mid-market, national, and multi-national clients, providing expertise in taxonomy, product content, site search and SEO to improve online sales and profitability.
Learn more about Sitation at sitation.com.