E-Catalogs: Your Essential Showcase

Each time I open a magazine – consumer or trade – I see articles about how companies are developing an e-business presence to remain competitive, increase revenue and provide improved customer service.

Companies must present their product information as efficiently as possible as well as help customer service representatives quickly and thoroughly reply to questions. One way to share product information while streamlining your product data management processes is through the development of an electronic catalog solution.

In a July 2000 report, the Aberdeen Group, Boston, said, “A key determinant of success in the Internet economy will be the ability to digitize, manage and distribute product information in the form of an electronic catalog that meets end-users’ unique and varied requirements.”

According to Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, online catalogs can increase sales, reduce costs and enable customers to make purchasing decisions more quickly. E-catalog solutions work to achieve several other objectives. They help customer service representatives respond to queries more efficiently and supply channel partners with real-time access to information.

The basis of the e-catalog solution is standardized and centralized product information, residing in a well-designed central repository, typically a relational database. This central database core of the e-catalog solution makes product information easy to manage and allows companies to publish it in a variety of formats, including print, CD-ROM and the Web. More importantly, e-catalog solutions can be fully integrated into the business process, allowing product information updates to be reflected in real time on a Web site, intranet or extranet.

By taking the right steps with the right tools, e-catalogs can be easily implemented for business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies in virtually any industry.

There are several steps that companies need to take in the development and implementation of successful e-catalog solutions.

Database design and architecture is a critical step because the central repository provides storage of and access to your company’s product information. Poorly designed solutions often suffer from mediocre performance, are difficult to manipulate and expand and make movement of data to other systems such as industry portals difficult. Companies should integrate one of the many database software applications available, taking into account existing platforms within the company’s infrastructure.

Once the database is designed, product data need to be analyzed and standardized. Data may exist throughout your company in disparate formats, in a multitude of structured or unstructured electronic formats, in print or simply in the collective knowledge of engineers and salespeople.

Three kinds of data analysis are relevant to this process:

• Source data analysis involves assessing product information as it exists (databases, images, technical drawings, pricing spreadsheets) and devising a plan to convert it to a standard electronic format for import into the new system.

• A gap analysis, wherein you identify any missing elements that would enhance the product information that ultimately will be presented in a variety of new formats, also should be conducted. This might include detailed product descriptions, graphics or technical specifications.

• Product line analysis involves interviewing all relevant content owners, such as product managers and marketing staff, to define product families and the product features and attributes required for each family. This will allow for an organized and easy-to-use presentation of product information within the e-catalog.

Authoring and data management tools are another key component of an e-catalog solution. Once information has been created and stored in the database, content authors need a way to access the data, create new content and edit and update content.

An editorial interface must be integrated into the solution, along with work-flow tools. The requirements for these tools should consider the collaborative nature of content development – how many departments or individuals need to access and update the product information, for example. The work-flow tools will be defined based on the business rules for content dependencies and approval requirements. Ultimately, the content authoring and management tool should be intuitive and easy to use, enabling your business to drastically reduce costs by streamlining the content management process.

Once the central repository of product information has been created and populated, a Web publishing tool can be implemented to create the Web-based e-catalog component of the total solution. The Web catalog must have dynamic search and data presentation functionality to meet the needs of all users. Different people – customer service representatives, salespeople, prospective customers and channel partners – need different information, and they often prefer to access it in various ways. They must be able to easily find the products they need, as well as view all of the supporting information so that they can buy or recommend products. Choosing the right search tools can mean the difference between record sales and frustrated customers.

With a print publishing tool, your company can print catalogs from the same central database that drives your Web catalog. Both full product line or specialty catalogs can be created from the central database, with the assurance that all product information is as accurate and up-to-date as possible. To satisfy your customers who prefer to receive your product catalog on CD-ROM, a CD-ROM publishing tool from a third-party vendor also can be implemented.

To truly leverage the power of e-business, you will ultimately need to enable customers to perform purchasing transactions online.

The technology required to support this function depends on the buying processes, business models and how deeply you want or need to integrate it into your enterprise system. There are many approaches to the e-commerce aspect of the e-catalog solution in use today. For some companies, generation of an order as a print-out of an e-mail (for subsequent data entry into an existing order entry system) is considered e-commerce.

At the other end of the spectrum is the fully integrated system, whereby orders are entered by customers online, the transaction is passed to an existing inventory system, inventory availability information is relayed back to the customer in real time, and the final order is approved and processed into the order entry system. A system of this type also would allow for communication of statistics to a decision support system and the automatic input of buyer information to customer care systems. This information becomes invaluable when developing or measuring sales and marketing programs.

Your business requirements will drive the selection of the technology to enable the e-commerce aspect of your solution.

An efficient e-catalog solution can be critical to the success of your e-business from all vantage points, including sales, marketing, manufacturing, finance, operations and customer service. It’s simply one of the best ways to meet your customer’s purchasing needs and streamline your business at the same time.

• Lynda Brooks is vice president of marketing and client solutions at Thomas Technology Solutions Inc., Horsham, PA.ly

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