Getting the Complete Picture

This article was published in the August 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

Walmart streamlines supplier-based content for omnichannel presentation

In effort to keep up with ever-connected consumers’ changing expectations, retailers often trade basic merchandising strategies in favor of eye-catching “online experiences.” While many companies are focused on driving gains through experiential services such as live chat, social media integration and even virtual reality videos, many retailers fail to optimize baseline customer experience — a practice that provides the basic details shoppers need to make a purchasing decision.

Part of the challenge stems from the quality of content provided by supplier partners. It’s not uncommon for suppliers to harvest details from multiple sources; they might scrape content from other sites and use content creation teams or other external resources.

Walmart is addressing this challenge with a cloud-based engine that manages online content shared by its supplier partners. With global e-commerce sales more than doubled over the last four years, the retailer is committed to serving its omnichannel customers.

Walmart wants to “quickly help the customer find what they’re looking for, and provide them with the right set of options to purchase the item — whether that is in-store, online, through our ship-to-store services, even through our third-party ‘Marketplace’ service,” says Ram Rampalli, Walmart’s director of omnichannel content technology and strategy. “We need to ensure that they have the best experience overall.”

Quality content

A pre-requisite for this experience is high-quality digital product information presented through images, descriptions and other key product attributes.

“Our goal is to serve the customer,” Rampalli says. “To do this better, we need this data.”

That need is demonstrated in results of a consumer survey from technology provider Shotfarm; 78 percent of respondents said the quality of product content is very important when making purchase decisions, and one in four have abandoned a purchase because of poor product information.

"Retailers are increasingly requiring partners to supply brand-specific content."

Mike Lapchick

The report, released this spring, surveyed more than 1,500 consumers about their online shopping habits and the importance they place on content when making purchase decisions.

Beyond not producing the most thorough information, the processes currently used by most companies “don’t help retailers move product or meet consumer expectations when on specific landing pages,” says Shotfarm CEO Mike Lapchick. “Thus, retailers are increasingly requiring partners to supply brand-specific content — a process that heightens the value of information.”

Another challenge for retailers is establishing a ubiquitous, single format to request, send and receive content from a variety of suppliers. Companies that lack this centralized system will continue to collect and present inconsistent and incomplete product content, which negatively impacts every facet of online sales efforts.

Walmart’s “Enterprise Specification 2.0” initiative was launched in an effort to secure high-quality product content and get it online quickly. The effort uses application program interfaces to help manufacturer partners publish product catalogs on the retailer’s website. It replaces manual, time-consuming spreadsheet processes and streamlines the presentation of high-quality digital product content.

While delivering a good experience for customers, Spec 2.0 also put new pressures on Walmart’s business partner brands. In addition to potential system incompatibilities, many partners’ existing platforms might not have the breadth or scalability to manage the rising volume of structured and unstructured data including digital photos, product descriptions and other merchandise information.

Eager to remove barriers and create an easier process for its suppliers to securely and swiftly share critical information online, Walmart implemented Shotfarm’s cloud-based system that enables all suppliers to comply with new product standards. Shotfarm’s Switch Marketplace lets Walmart suppliers readily convert product data into the retailer’s desired formats.

Walmart worked with Shotfarm to define how it wanted to receive information including merchandise details, file names and image formats and sizes. Manufacturers can download the Switch platform from their app store. Once installed, they select Walmart as their retail partner and begin delivering content.

Improving accuracy

“Our enterprise Walmart Spec [program] has a whole bunch of attributes for descriptions, videos, images, among other details,” Rampalli says. “The supplier basically brings their entire spread of product information, and the respective business organization within Walmart will pick up [their] particular data points.”

Since integrating the platform in March, Walmart has decreased its time to market when posting supplier data online. Meanwhile, the retailer is improving data accuracy, which translates into improved customer satisfaction.

“Product information is the foundation for retail.”

Ram Rampalli

“Product information is the foundation for retail,” Rampalli says. “High-quality, rich product content will help us provide the right assortment for our consumers, accelerate the item setup process so that the items are made available fast for the consumer, ensure that the algorithms and tools work efficiently and provide a great consumer experience online or in-store.”