Industrial & Distribution: Product Data is the Key to Online Selling

Like many do-it-yourself home improvement amateurs, I have the gift of stretching a two-hour job into a whole day – maybe a whole weekend sometimes.

I get an idea (or, more likely: something breaks) and spend some time coming up with a plan and a parts list.  This planning and research phase usually happens on, in or near the point where I’ve diagnosed the problem (e.g. under a car, in a hole, or staring into the guts of a malfunctioning appliance).

In this situation, my hands are nearly always filthy, which makes researching solutions on my phone difficult.  Frustration sets in as the in-situ research often creates more questions than it answers:  Online forums often contain a variety of conflicting solutions and suggestions.  And online retailers either carpet bomb me with unfamiliar jargon and product attributes or confuse me with one-line “grunts” that tell me nothing.

An example of an “online grunt” product listing

About 80% of the time, I’ll end up yanking the broken, corroded, or mangled part out and head down to the local retailer hoping they can help me identify a replacement – and the tools and accessories needed to make my system whole again.

Online Sales in the Industrial/Distribution Sector

Some retailers might argue that a professional who really knew his stuff could decipher the jargon or make a decision from a one-line description.  And they may be right – some distributors focus on serving professionals and aren’t interested in serving the DIY crowd.

If you’re in the industrial or distribution sectors, the real question to ask is “how much are you really selling online?”

2020 was a big year for eCommerce.  Online sales for US merchants jumped from an average of 15.8% of revenues to 21.3%.  How does your online revenue and growth compare?

B2C retailers have figured things out – more than 40 percent of Gen Zers purchase more than half their clothing items online.

Ten years ago, traditional clothing retailers were laughing at online sellers:  “Clothing is personal – you can’t touch, feel or see things online!”.  A significant number of those traditional clothing retailers no longer exist.

It’s easy to assume that industrial/distribution customers will continue to prefer picking up items from the warehouse, ordering from a catalog, or phoning in orders from the jobsite.  But keep in mind that your future customers are those kids who are currently making most of their purchases online.

Superior Product Information:  The Key to Online Success

One of the big reasons online clothing sellers were able to out-compete department stores was superior product information.   No, you can’t try on an item online, but you can get targeted recommendations based on your body measurements and preferences.  If you like that sweater, you’ll LOVE these shoes!

But you sell plumbing supplies, not penny loafers.  How is this relevant to you?

Successful online retailers were able to virtualize the personal service and experience that you’d expect at a high-end retailer like Nordstrom.  Superior product information can help you do the same thing with your customers.  It helps you go beyond the jargon-heavy descriptions and one-line grunts to provide the recommendations and guidance your customers expect.

Essentially, superior product information is the key to “cloning” the guy behind the desk in your warehouse who knows everything.  Guys like him – and the service he provides – are a big reason your customers choose you.  He can talk jargon with the professionals and can explain things clearly to amateurs like me.

Let’s look at some examples.  Here’s an online listing for a Moen bathroom faucet:

This is the kind of product listing that I usually find when I’m under the sink looking for a replacement on my phone.  It contains “boilerplate” product information received from the manufacturer and generates more questions than it answers.  I’m not going to reveal the source of this listing because this company’s in-store experience and expertise have been fabulous.  But their online experience is awful.  The only value I got out of this site was to copy and paste the manufacturer’s part number into another browser tab. . .

A listing for Home Depot pops up.  Now that’s what I was looking for!

This simple table answered all the questions I had about this faucet:  3/8” connection size and no need to buy a separate drain kit or water supply lines (both included).  The listing also included links to installation instructions, diagrams and tools I might need to complete the installation.

Superior Product Information:  Where to Start?

Five years ago, Home Depot’s website looked more like the first listing above.  A lot of generic product listings with limited or confusing information.  They’ve obviously implemented a great product information strategy and that has helped them grow considerably:  Home Depot is currently the world’s 15th largest online retailer.

But you’re not Home Depot.  You don’t have a web development army and millions of dollars to spend on your website.  What can you do?  Where do you start?

Start with a Product Information Strategy

Alpine can help you develop a product information strategy tailored to your business, budget, and timeline.  We’ve been developing eCommerce solutions for the past 20 years, and successful projects always start with a well-defined plan.  Here’s the process we employ to help our clients develop a solid product information strategy:

  1. Formal Discovery – Discovery is a collaborative effort focused on uncovering the basic information needed to develop a product information management strategy. The effort consists of the following:
    1. Your Vision / Future State – What do your customers need from your website? What goals does your company have for the website?  When do you want/need to deliver those capabilities?
    2. Reality / The Current State – What are the strengths and weaknesses of your site? Let’s compare your current capabilities and performance to the future state and define the gaps.
    3. Business & Technical Priorities – Once we understand where the gaps are, let’s define the “need to haves” and the “nice to haves”.
    4. Skills & Resources – What work can be performed “in house” and what needs to be outsourced? What tools and resources are currently available internally and where are additional resources needed?
  1. Formal Product Information Management Plan – This is the process of creating the blueprints that will direct your product information efforts. Key components include:
    1. Business & Technical Requirements – In-depth description of the features, functions, assets and activities that will be required to arrive at the future state.
    2. Project Plan & Statement of Work – How and when the requirements will be delivered and who is responsible for performing the work.
    3. Estimates & Resources – Costs associated with efforts, including the resources and tools required to deliver the requirements. Often, a cost/benefit analysis is included to justify the investment.

Alpine typically dedicates about 2-3 days with our clients to perform the formal discovery workshop.  From there, we’ll take a week to analyze what we’ve learned and prepare the deliverables described above.

If you’re wondering where to start or how to plan, we’re certainly happy to help.  Contact us and let’s talk!

Consider a PIM Solution

Our industrial and distribution clients are typically dealing with multiple manufacturers, thousands of SKUs and numerous product lines.  They’re also selling products via a variety of channels:  physical locations, catalogs, call centers, and the web.  That’s a lot of product data to wrangle!

For clients in this sector, we often recommend a Product Information Management (PIM) solution as a critical component of a product information strategy.

A PIM allows you to centralize your product data and set rules to ensure that the product data is consistent and appropriate within each of your channels.

For example, you may need to combine descriptive data from your manufacturer with stock levels and pricing data from your ERP system.  A PIM helps you make that blend and manage the subtle differences required for each channel.

The AkeneoPIM solution has been a great option for our industrial and distribution clients.  It can handle the complexity of multiple channels, multiple product lines, and the variety of product configurations, bundles, assemblies, substitutes and complementary products common in the industrial sector.

We also like Akeneo because it can be managed by business users.  That has been attractive to our clients because it decreases their reliance on IT resources and allows the marketing and web teams to get things done faster.  Read more about the benefits of Akeneo.

Need Help with Your Product Information?

Product information challenges can be overwhelming and intimidating, and we’re here to help you wherever you are on your eCommerce journey.  Whether you need help with planning, strategy, implementation – or all of the above- we have a team of passionate, experienced consultants who can help you take your eCommerce experience to the next level.

Let’s talk – Contact Alpine today!