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What is Behind the Explosive Growth in SKU Count and Data Requirements


By: Scott Luckett, MAAP

Vice President, Industry Strategy

GCommerce, Inc.

There’s a lot of attention being paid to online commerce and eTailing, recently. The Auto Care Association study describes eTailing as the fastest growing segment of aftermarket sales and forecasts it will reach 20% of total aftermarket sales by the end of the decade. This is significant because 55% ofwhat they measured as eTailing were purchases by commercial customers – shops, fleets and other B2B activity. Consumer purchases made up only 45% of the total and projected to see much slower growth than the commercial volume.

The distinction between B2C and B2B is of little significance, however, when it comes to the data requirements. Because B2B buyers are nothing other than B2C buyers who happen to be at work. They bring their online search, navigation and shopping habits with them from home. And, aftermarket resellers who are going to succeed online must offer the product information and buying experience that all customers bring with them, naturally. Industrial products giant, W. W. Grainger, Inc., was anearly adopter of online commerce strategies, and now does over a third of their volume online (completely B2B). Further, they expect that number to grow by 20% annually. They’ve staked out that leadership position in part because of a commitment to rich product content and an online experience that is obsessed with the customer’s needs. There’s nothing comparable to Grainger in the aftermarket – yet.

If you hope to grow your online sales volume, the most important words for you and your supply chain partners to remember are ... wait for it ... yes, “It’s all about the data”. And, specifically, I’m referring to product data – all of the information about a product aside from the vehicle applications. This is thecontent about every product in the aftermarket that is the subject of the PIES specification (Product Information Exchange Standard – PIES was originally a very good idea in search of a market mandate. Weights and dimensions, UPC numbers and HazMat codes were important throughout the supply chain. But, load sheets and other methods had emerged over the years to effectively get thecontent from the supplier to the reseller. The job was getting done (somewhat laboriously) and the PIES standard struggled to win mass-adoption.

In the last five years, however, the game has changed in two important ways. First, the number of SKUsthat must be managed by trading partners has grown into the millions. And, second, the volume and variety of information about each of those SKUs has exploded. Using an industry standard and robust technology to manage and convey mass amounts of product content is no longer a choice – it’s a necessity.

Both commercial customers and consumers have grown to expect the world at their fingertips thanks to Google, Amazon, eBay and others. Making use of drop shipment and integrated fulfillment solutions, online resellers are not limited to offering the products they have on the shelf. It’s not uncommon for distributors to manage 500,000 SKU or more. Many retailers manage 1.5 – 2.5 million SKU in support of their online and special order business. Online is a great way to sell the stuff you don’t have in the store – just ask the eTailers. But, you’ve got to have the product information if you’re going to convince the customer to make a selection with confidence. The customer can’t order what they can’t see.

Online business is driving the relentless growth in the number and variety of data elements that must be mastered for each SKU. Unlike a transaction that takes place in the store, with the product in-hand and supported by the experience of a parts professional across the counter, on-line customers depend completely on the product information they can glean from the screen. All of the characteristics, features and benefits, performance and physical attributes, images, warranties, weights and dimensionsand, oh, the price, must be presented on the screen in a clear, concise and consistent manner – yes, regardless of the screen size. The market (that means the customer) is demanding more information about the product so they can make an informed purchase decision.

Full, rich, standardized product content is a differentiator and competitive advantage. Resellers who deliver it, and suppliers who provide it, are positioned to capture increased market share in the fastest growing segment of the aftermarket economy. Online commerce is a game played by different rules. And, in our next installment, I’ll make specific recommendations about where to make the most effective investment in your online product content strategy.

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