CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
November 13, 2019
Forward Thinking

How to anticipate consumer needs through complete, accurate, and consistent product information

If companies do not tailor their supply chain data management operations to meet the needs of omnichannel consumers, they risk losing sales.

In the age of the on-demand consumer, supplying information about a product so that it is easily accessible and shareable is no longer just a "nice to have"; it's an imperative for retailers and brands to grow a business and evolve with our new cultural norms.

Today's most forward-thinking brands and retailers are paying close attention to the ways consumers approach a sale. More consumers are researching products via mobile device than ever before. According to the product content platform company Salsify, 90 percent of consumers say they do their research and shopping online.

Companies that are able to provide all the product information that consumers want in the way that they want have a major opportunity to win customer loyalty; those that don't risk losing sales. Research company eMarketer has found that 86 percent of consumers are unlikely to buy products from a brand after an experience with inaccurate product information. But in order for companies to fully deliver on the promise of more consumable data, brands and retailers need to move out of "response mode" with on-the-fly fixes and inefficient processes. Instead they need to tailor traditional supply chain data management operations to anticipate the needs of omnichannel consumers.

Let's take a look at the current challenges in providing accurate product data, the risks involved with ignoring this opportunity, and what retail companies can do to win customer loyalty by providing comprehensive data.

Current challenges

Since the rise of omnichannel retailing, retailers and brands have been faced with a multitude of different competing priorities. At the same time, data has continued to explode online, forcing an unprecedented fast pace that has left many companies playing catch-up as they try to provide consumers with the data they need to make purchase decisions.

Currently, one of the biggest challenges is finding a way to rein in various "quick fixes" for completing product data. Retailers that receive incomplete information from their suppliers may guess what the missing attributes are, or they may spend valuable time (and resources) chasing down the correct information. Once this information is found, retailers may be forced into a last-minute scramble to post it online, possibly causing the information to be inappropriately timed with shipments or delaying the product's availability.

Aside from the challenges of incomplete information, there is also the issue of assessing the accuracy of the data actually received. One small inaccurate detail can cause a major chain reaction. For example, when weight and dimensional attributes are incorrectly communicated through the supply chain, organizations cannot accurately calculate transportation costs for the product. Also, with so much automation in today's warehouses, distribution operations could be disrupted if the actual weight or size does not match the data attributes ascribed to products. Inaccurate product dimension information could also cause problems at the store level, as retailers could end up allocating too much or too little room on the shelf for the products.

Even when data seems to be communicated properly to trading partners, there is still the chance they can misunderstand what is meant by various industry terms. Suppliers and retailers often struggle to understand each other when there are no set definitions for a variety of attributes across many product categories. For example, in the footwear industry, one company may measure "heel height" differently than another.

Ignoring the problem

These three core challenges of product information—completeness, accuracy, and consistency—expose a major weak link in the retail supply chain. The abundance of incomplete, inaccurate, and inconsistent product information breeds consumer frustration. In a recent study by Salsify, 94 percent of consumers cited detailed product information as the single most important factor in their search and selection process and reported that they would abandon a retailer's website if they couldn't find the details they needed. Making sure these customers are satisfied can mean a big sales boost. A recent paper by product data software company Edgecase found that shoppers who use product attributes to make decisions have almost a 20 percent higher conversion rate. Simply put, if a company doesn't provide the information a consumer seeks, then the consumer will find another company that does and buy from them.

A focus on improving product information—both in quality and the way it is cultivated on the back end—can reduce the risk of consumer disappointment and loss of sales while also helping to build a stronger bridge between what the consumer expects and what the industry can actually provide.

How to take action

A standardized approach for listing and classifying products across all commercial platforms—as opposed to using proprietary data exchange systems—will allow consumers to discover more accurate, authentic product information on any device, regardless if they are shopping online or in a store.

If supplier partners provide a single, complete, and standardized set of product images and data attributes—a set that provides dependable product representation across all consumer channels—retailers can reduce item set up time and enhance speed-to-market, leading to more opportunities for all.

One way to accomplish this is by utilizing industry standards such as the GS1 System of Standards. Across shopping channels, platforms, and devices, GS1 Standards enable trading partners to speak the same language by providing complete product identification, automated data capture, and an organized way to share information. Through this language, retail trading partners can effectively share a single, standardized product data set—minimizing costs and optimizing operational efficiencies for all parties.

Ultimately, increased industry participation and collaboration around a single path forward will eliminate the need for duplicate work by partner organizations, reduce trading partner frustration, and improve the consumer shopping experience. Now is the time for retail companies to take action when it comes to their data and anticipate change, or risk falling behind their competition.

Melanie Nuce is vice president, apparel and general merchandise at GS1 US. In her role, she guides the GS1 US Apparel & General Merchandise Initiative by working with industry stakeholders to identify business needs and by developing standards-based approaches to address them.

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