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Read My Lips - Data Sync is Vital

I was watching my favorite cable program the other day and grew increasingly annoyed because the audio was just a half a beat off from the video. It was completely distracting because what my eyes told my brain to expect was out of sync with what my ears were hearing (that’s the medical explanation). But imagine if that was your critical business data, and your version of the truth was a bubble off from that of your trading partner. Business data that isn’t in sync between trading partners can be more than annoying … it can be very expensive.

In this column we’ve written at length about how rich product content and catalog data fuels your business systems. But if the maker of the product and the distributor/retailer don’t have their product data and inventory files in perfect sync, the business systems consuming that data fuel can misfire and make some costly mistakes. Data elements critical to ecommerce and procurement include the brand name and part number, the standard package and the unit of measure as well as the pricing and minimum order quantity. If the supplier and distributor are not perfectly aligned on these fields for all items, the result can be lost sales, shipping overages and shortages, invoicing errors and costly adjustments. When you consider that a typical distributor manages data for hundreds of thousands of items and gets data refreshed weekly or in some cases, daily, a very small margin of error can affect many products and even more transactions.

When dealing with product data in the volumes commonly found in the aftermarket, it’s essential that processing be automated to the greatest degree possible. And for systems to function as intended, critical data elements must be standardized and recognizable by the application. Unlike humans, business systems cannot recognize “Standard” and SMP as the same, or Dog Bone and Engine Torque Strut as synonymous. Brands and Part Terms that cannot be found, simply get lost in search results. This results in lost sales and customer disappointment. Remember, with more business being conducted online (both B2C and B2B) there is no parts professional standing by to interpret the results. Customers will either be delighted or disappointed by what they see on the screen. Type “dog bone” into Google and see what you get. Ask the pro behind the parts counter for a Dog Bone and she’ll ask you for the year, make, model and engine.

A number of years ago, the Auto Care Association conducted a study to measure the degree to which basic product data was mismatched between suppliers and their distributors. A handful of chosen suppliers and their distributors were asked to submit six fields of information for all of the items in product lines they bought and sold between each other every day. A comparison of the data revealed that more than 10% of the items did not agree on how many units were in the package or the minimum order quantity or unit of measure. They didn’t even agree on the part number nearly 5% of the time. How can you expect automated procurement or ecommerce transactions to work properly when the data leads to ordering too much or too little or the wrong item or nothing at all?

Thousands of inventory files are exchanged daily for the purpose of quoting availability in an e-commerce application. In a recent example studied, over 25% of the available inventory did not match a brand code and part number as found in the catalog. If the application look-up is driven from the catalog, 25% of the results are going to read, “part not found”, even though inventory is sitting on the shelf.

The subject of data management is vast and scales with the size of your enterprise. But, there are a few simple steps you can take to begin to get your arms around the data synchronization problem and reduce the cost of bad data. The first is to use an industry standard Brand Code for every single line of product you carry. The Auto Care Association maintains the aftermarket Brand Code Table at http://www.autocare.org/What-We-Do/Technology/Product-Areas/brand-table/. If you and your trading partner agree to use the 4-character industry code for all brands, you will be one very big step closer to synchronization. Remember, in data management, there is no extra credit given for originality (in fact, it’s a deduction).

As obvious as it may seem, most companies do not have a documented data management plan that addresses synchronization. How often do you add or drop products from your catalog? Now, how often, and through what method do you notify your trading partners of those changes? It no surprise that the Auto Care study found that distributors only had records for 70% of the items available from their suppliers. And, 10% of the items listed by the distributors weren’t recognized by the suppliers of the brand because of bad part numbers and obsolete items that never die. Periodically, suppliers and distributors should purge and refresh their data to stay in sync.

Perhaps the hardest way to address data synchronization is to make it a priority and a topic of conversation between you and your trading partners. Ask if they trap for inventory feeds that vary wildly from one week to the next. If the supplier of 4,000 items in a product line suddenly starts sending inventory updates with 800 items, will the reseller’s systems spot the error and send an alert. In one case, it was only after sales of the line had dropped by 50% that the problem was recognized.

You have probably made a quite an investment in your database and technology to generate and consume data files. But, unless you consider and plan to manage all of the things that can go wrong, all you have is a system that can screw up your data at the speed of light. The processes and systems to get and keep your data in sync will save you from countless errors and help you sell 100% of the available product every day. Doesn’t that sound sweet?

S.Luckett_SweaterAbout the author:  Scott Luckett is the vice president, industry strategy for GCommerce Inc. Previously, Scott held several positions at the Auto Care Association over 17 years and was most recently CIO with responsibility for the Technology Standards Committee, the Telematics Task Force and the National Catalog Managers Association

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