“I wish we had a better system”
Manufacturers and distributors often rely on outdated tools to publish their product information to eCommerce channels, a practice which is both time consuming and worryingly error prone. We recently caught up with an eCommerce content specialist, often retained to stand up new storefronts, who shared a recent case study where a good PIM would have saved time and effort.
Alright, who hid the product information?
The CMO of an industrial tool manufacturer wanted to create a storefront on his company’s website to sell replacement parts for their tools direct to customers. These parts were readily available through third-party distributors. A couple quotes from the lead e-commerce manager, tasked with the project, explain the scope of the task:
“We want our customers to look to us first for replacement parts for our tools. Right now, they don’t because everything is a special order through our customer service. We lose opportunities because It is so much faster for them to order a new drive belt from a distributor.”
“We carry over 50,000 replacement parts for our tool brands. I want to focus on the top 10,000 SKUs — our best sellers. We want to stand out with better product descriptions than the distributors have. Trouble is, even though we manufacture these tools, we don’t have original documentation for them in any usable form. And over the years, through staff attrition we’ve lost all the “old guard” — the engineers who designed the tools and knew them inside and out. There’s nobody left who can answer questions.”
“We don’t have our own software. We can only produce a spreadsheet of part numbers. I wish we had a better [product information] system, but we don’t.”
No details. No experts. Excel files. Sound familiar?
The company had acquired its portfolio of tool manufacturing companies over many years. Acquisitions inevitably lead to staff reductions, resulting in knowledge loss. The CMO wanted to take advantage of an open marketing channel.
The eCommerce group started to tackle the project themselves but stalled because of the scale and scope of the project, so outsourcing made the most sense, allowing the eCommerce team to focus on a larger initiative to standardize and upgrade the autonomous websites of the three brands in question. Manual product information management was just too much for the internal team.
Reverse engineering product information – the painful manual way
Upgrading 10,000 SKUs took some time, due in part because the company did not have direct access to their product information via a PIM solution. Pulling it together required:
- First asking the sales team to generate a report of the 10K best-selling SKUs (not trivial).
- Next, requesting a data export of these SKUs and their part names from the company’s agency of record that “hosted” this content in their proprietary CMS. (All changes to product information had to pass through the agency.)
- Thirdly, verifying that the export correctly matched part numbers, part names and sales figures.
The brands were comprised of professional-grade woodworking and metalworking tools: free-standing and benchtop shop tools such as lathes, band saws, sanders and vises as well as hoists, trucks and pneumatic tools.
The replacement parts included most all of the component parts, from model-specific motors and housings to ubiquitous items that fit hundreds of models, such as O-rings, washers, screws, nuts, handles, springs, V-belts, wheels and ball bearings.
In an odd downstream move, two distributor websites sites were referenced as sources for part details – having a manufacturer rely on distributor information seemed somehow ironic. “Start with their stuff and see what you can do,” the eCommerce team commented, adding, “We don’t know how you can dress up a flat washer.” The team supplied product names were exactly that. Names like BUSHING, JAW INS ASSY, 10/32 X 1/2 SOC. HD CAP SCREW, CLLR NUT, 1/2″ DRILL CHUCK 3/8-24TPI W/KEY and so forth. Minimal for sure.
Thanks to the distributor sites, the product pictures started coming together. A Google search with the brand name and part number produced more pieces of the product information puzzle. No surprise that the product names were identical to the descriptions found on practically every other site. All of them must have used the same content aggregator.
To nuance just how tedious the information gathering exercise can be …
- One distributor included the line drawing and schematics for many of the primary tools with numbered callouts for the replacement parts – allowing for verification of at least one specific tool fit for a given part. This site placed tiny parts against a background grid of one-inch squares that enabled us to determine approximate sizes.
- Another site offered “For Use with These Tools” links that helped us to assign multiple compatible models to the part. Both sites often had details about how to replace the part, or its purpose.
- The list was sorted two ways. First, alphabetically by part name, allowing a setup of consistent descriptions, especially for common parts in different sizes like screws, washers, nuts and belts. Then part numbers were sorted. One brand incorporated the model number into the part number, making it easier to match components. Similar numbering patterns were found in the other two brands.
All in all, it was possible to identify at least one specific tool model for about two-thirds of the SKUs on the list. For all SKUs, including the common items like screws, washers and nuts, a statement asserting that the part in question was a certified Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) part, made to exact specifications of the brand, was included. If the buyer were ordering using the owner’s manual as a parts reference, there would be little chance of an error. One completed example read this way:
Drive Belt #16 for Brand X Model Z Sander. Rubber. This replacement part is made by the original manufacturer. For installation steps and tools, related parts and precautions, refer to your owner’s manual and model schematics.
Light at the end of the tunnel
It took 10 weeks to deliver the 10,000 enhanced descriptions allowing the eCommerce team to successfully launch their Replacement Parts Store web site. But this is just the tip of the 50K strong SKU iceberg.
How a PIM could have saved everyone time (now and in the future)
Given the (not uncommon) history of this manufacturer, a PIM may have possibly helped to enhance the product text by applying validation and automation rules to backfill attributes from data within the product names, and it would certainly have sped up the workflow by:
- Automating the merge of part numbers and names with prices and sales data,
- Quickly exporting this data from the PIM, and
- Quickly importing the completed descriptions back into the PIM for upload to the website.
Alternatively, the eCommerce team could have easily worked directly within the PIM itself and probably spared the use of an outside firm. Seeing products in the context of the taxonomy would have aided in identifying parts with ambiguous names.
In addition, PIM capabilities would have allowed anyone on the project to collect web-quality product images or other visual assets. Down the line, if this company is able to obtain owner’s manuals and other supporting documentation from their manufacturing facilities, these could be added as well.
A PIM is an invaluable tool for both manufacturers and distributors. PIM enables the manufacturer to establish itself as the Source of Truth for its products, and to disseminate accurate details through all customer channels, including its distributors.
For distributors, who sell products from hundreds or thousands of manufacturers, PIM allows them to manage the tens of thousands (or millions) of SKUs they offer, and to create the most customer-friendly experience possible for their competitive advantage.