· E-commerce

PIM Systems: A Key Link in the Multi-Channel E-Commerce Chain

Multi-channel support is becoming essential for many merchants, whose customers keep demanding more continuity and consistency in their shopping experience. From physical stores to e-commerce sites, mobile apps and third-party distributors, points of contact with customers keep growing in number. However, making the leap to implementation is far from being straightforward and it has become quite difficult for merchants to ensure the overall product data consistency required for CXM (Customer eXperience Management) on all these points of contact. At the time of single channel, retailers relied directly on their unique selling tool to manage the characteristic data of the products they sold. Whether an e-commerce platform for pure players, an ERP connected to a POS system processing physical store sales, or a dedicated mail order management software solution, this tool used to manage all aspects of a merchant’s products and it did not need to address any multi-channel distribution issues.

Using one of these tools as the master system of a multi-channel business is unsatisfactory and even risky. Multi-channel sales mechanisms require specific features for each of the channels involved, and no single-channel system is able to handle them satisfactorily. The rapid emergence of mobile commerce even increases architectural complexity with its characteristic way of mixing channels, including showrooming and click & collect. Unfortunately, many merchants still use separate solutions to manage the different channels they address and they struggle to synchronize them, often leading to unsatisfactory results for the end customer: poor synchronization of product information, of stock levels, inaccurate inventory records, etc.

A Single Data Repository for All Channels

It is therefore necessary to adopt specialized multi-channel tools, the most fundamental of which is the product repository, known as a Product Information Management system, or PIM.

It is a specialized version of Master Data Management (MDM) that focuses, as the name suggests, on managing the reference database containing the information that defines and illustrates all products.

In short, the PIM is the central repository for product-related content. It comes with a range of information aggregation and delivery interfaces, as well as tools designed to manage these data, their quality and their enrichment:

PIM

The Base Data

At the bare minimum, the PIM must contain essential data such as complete product specifications, including at least a name, type and/or category for each product, as well as an internal unique identifier, EAN barcode for traceability, SKU for inventory management, certification information (e.g., CE marking), etc.

In the field of fashion retail, for instance, it is possible to add the product line/style, material composition, the available colors and sizes (clothing sizes, shoe sizes, dimensions of accessories, etc.), manufacturing origin (i.e., country of origin and identity of the manufacturer), etc.

In order to store all this information, the nature of which varies depending on product types, it is necessary to configure data structures beforehand. The configuration must be sufficiently flexible to support all types of products, but also enable to manage a number of aspects such as categories, taxonomies, and other classification systems.

These data structures can be defined progressively, starting with a base structure defining the essential data that are common to all types of products, and then adding richer, more specialized structures for each product line and/or variant, inheriting from the base structure.

Moreover, multiple data structures can be connected through various types of links :

  • It is possible to require that the value of a piece of data from a structure (e.g., an item of clothing) match one of the values defined in another structure (e.g., one of the listed materials).
  • A composite product structure may refer to multiple “single” products, whether these may be sold individually or not. In fashion retail, for example, a “look” is a specific product assembled from several separate products, with its own visual identity, and possibly even a special price.
  • The structure of a product must also make it possible to define relationships with other products, such as cross-selling, up-selling, options, complements, etc.

In an international context, managing mullingual data and synchronizing changes is a particularly important and complex challenge. While a single team will be able to manage the central repository in the reference language(s), local contributors will often be in charge of content localization, further complicating the lifecycle of the data and requiring the implementation of collaborative features (workflows, content modification alerts, etc.).

Data Required for Selling

Beside product qualification data, more information is needed to actually sell the products :

  • Prices: per unit, in several currencies where necessary, excluding and including taxes (a somewhat complex subject in the US), etc.
  • Logistics-related information: packaging type and size, dellivery terms, regulations pertaining to transportation (flammable or hazardous materials), to customs clearance, etc.
  • Etc.

Enriched Data for Merchandising

Although consumers are very keen on the availability of highly detailed information about the characteristics of the products they are considering buying, they are also very sensitive to the presentation of these products, using less technical and “raw” content.

Additionally, all enrichments that can be performed on product sheets will contribute to the improvement of natural rankings for Web channels, which will help a lot with SEO work.

Rich Contents

Through the addition of editorial information, product sheets can be enriched with a description, a visual presentation, style advice, etc. For technical products, in addition to detailed specifications it may be useful — and maybe sometimes necessary — to provide assembly, use and maintenance instructions, spare parts catalogs, etc. These contents are usually managed in PDF, so that they can be downloaded and printed if desired.

Multimedia assets such as product images dramatically improve sales potential. The type of image can vary depending on the product, either showing it completely isolated, or with a more elaborate presentation showing the product being used in context.

Developing the multimedia aspect can further improve conversion rates, using video clips and/or presentations, interactive 360º views, tutorial-style animations showing how to use the product, etc.

Integration of External Data

Depending on the nature of the products sold, it is also possible to enrich the product sheets with additional information — or links to this information — from third-party sources, including press articles, posts from influential blogs, social networks, etc.

Consumer Actions

Another way to enrich product data significantly is by leveraging information created by customers themselves, commonly known as User-Generated Content (UGC).

This information includes product ratings and reviews that can be left by customers/consumers, usually only after they have purchased an item. This external content enriches product data sheets with information that is very popular with visitors, since it comes from fellow consumers and is therefore perceived as being more relevant to their purchase decision.

Moreover, ratings and reviews are an essential means for merchants to gather information allowing them to continuously improve the quality of their products and services, as well as their communication.

Albeit less intentionally, consumers also share — at least with the seller — the content of their shopping carts as well as their journeys across all channels. This information is used to determine which products are frequently purchased together (making it possible to automate cross-selling), what are the most viewed categories and products, what are the entry and exit pages, etc.

Aggregation of Multiple Data Sources

The PIM can be fed data from a very large number of sources, with formats that are more or less simple to integrate and manipulate, and more or less structured :

  • In-house manual data entry — by copying information available in various forms that are more or less computerized and structured;
  • Structured data from ERP systems;
  • Editorial data from CMS/ECM systems;
  • Multimedia assets from DAM (Digital Asset Management) repositories;
  • Data from the marketing process used to create and list new products, PLM (Product Lifecycle Management);
  • Consolidated sales data from CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems, to provide automated cross-selling mechanisms (customers who purchased this product also bought these other products…);
  • Supplier product databases.

Beyond this data assimilation interface aspect, traditional MDM features for processing data quality must be implemented so as to ensure that the consolidated data from these multiple sources are complete, unduplicated, and well organized.

This is why we need a robust solution to integrate data flows from different systems into a pivot format, with connectors to data sources and a mechanism like ETL to manage data flows : failure recovery, version control, rejection handling, etc.

A particular challenge in certain industries is how fast new products can be added to the PIM repository, and then sent out to all channels so that they can actually be released for sale. In the textile industry, the strong growth of fast-fashion brands, with giants such as Zara and H&M, sets a frantic pace (new products are introduced every week) that requires perfectly seamless product information exchange throughout the chain — which may not last longer than a few weeks from a product’s creation by marketing to its launch online and in stores.

Further Enrichment

It is generally not possible to fully automate product information enrichment, regardless of the number of sources that we are able to aggregate.

This is why an additional interface is needed, allowing contributors to :

  • Attach automatic calculation rules to specific attributes (e.g., when I enter the weight in any given unit, the value in other units is calculated automatically…);
  • Batch edit products using rules (e.g., to add a “lime green” variant to all selected products…);
  • Define and run data editing workflows, combined with fine-grained rights management down to product attribute level;
  • Etc.

Moreover, all this must be possible without any development, but instead through (more or less complex) configuration settings.

In order for this to work, it is imperative that the interface be designed to be productive and completely separate from the distribution channels.

Seamless Distribution Across All Channels

Once the data have been consolidated and enriched in the PIM, the next step is naturally to disseminate them. There can be many different distribution channels, which can generally be categorized into three major groups.

The PIM’s main concern is indeed to provide relevant and up-to-date information to all these channels.

At the same time, it must offer the possibility to adjust this information to suit any specific requirements of certain channels, including a choice of content variations such as text size and multimedia asset dimensions (pictures, videos, etc.).

Offline Channels

At a time when Web access and usage have become widespread, it might be tempting — as some do — to forget that not everyone is connected yet, not everyone has a reliable connection, and not eveyone has even adopted these purchasing habits.

For this reason, it may be necessary to distribute product information in various offline formats :

  • Printed catalogs
  • Printed product sheets in various formats for various uses
  • Etc.

Besides, even if these media are not used for driving sales, other offline formats continue to exist, be it traditional communication and advertising campaigns or even in-store displays.

Owned Online Channels

Currently, however, the main distribution channels are obviously those related to the Internet — and the Web in particular — starting with those operated by the merchants themselves, whether an on-premise solution or in SaaS (Software as a Service) mode :

  • Online store(s)
  • Catalog website with no online store
  • Corporate site
  • Product documentation site
  • Native mobile apps
  • Apps on smart TVs
  • In-store digital systems for use by sales clerks and/or customers
  • Call center
  • Etc.

Third-Party Online Channels

Finally, merchants can rely on a growing number of third-party services and partners to disseminate information about their products, or even sell them :

  • A distribution partner
  • Marketplaces
  • Price comparison engines
  • Social networks
  • The GDSN standardized data exchange network
  • Etc.

The Boundaries between PIM and PCM Are Not Always Clear

There is a theoretical distinction between the product repository features — PIM — and those designed to manage product distribution catalogs — PCM (Product Catalog Management).

But in practice, the scopes of market solutions labeled as PIM or PCM often overlap, making it more complex to understand what a solution covers exactly.

Since, in any case, both types of solutions are necessary to implement multi-channel e-commerce solutions, the question is not about defining the exact boundaries, but rather to ensure that all the required features are available.