Western retailer simplifies product information entry
When customers often travel several hours to reach one of your stores, providing comprehensive, accurate information online so they can research potential purchases before they hit the road is critical. Yet this goal can become formidable when your product assortment includes everything from fashion jeans to pet food to fencing.
These are several of the challenges Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply tackles. Murdoch’s is “an upscale, modern-day, mercantile store for folk who like to work, ride and play out west,” says Kitch Walker, chief marketing officer. In addition to its e-commerce business, the Bozeman, Mont.-based retailer has nearly 30 stores in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming.
While some customers use Murdoch’s website for its e-commerce capabilities, many also use it as a research tool. “Before they reach the [physical] store, they want to know you have what they’re looking for,” Walker says. “For us, e-commerce plays a big role in customer service by supporting our customers’ need to find and learn more about the products we sell.”
Walker joined Murdoch’s about five years ago, and developing e-commerce capabilities was a key initiative for the company. While Murdoch’s had a website at the time, it was fairly basic. “We wanted to bring e-commerce to life in a traditional bricks-and-mortar store with a lot” of stock keeping units, he says.
The number of items carried tops 200,000, and up to 40 percent of products can change in and out of e-commerce as a result of seasonality, fashion and new or discontinued products, Walker says. What’s more, products — and descriptions — can vary dramatically: The attributes to describe a denim shirt have almost nothing in common with those of log-splitters or coloring books. That makes managing product content especially tricky.
“I knew the diversity in products would put a lot of strain on the system,” Walker says.
To address this challenge, Walker began looking into product information management systems. “Early on, we identified it as a key success factor to manage product data on a large scale,” he says.
Avoiding information overload
Like Murdoch’s, most retailers today must build “a data-ready enterprise,” says Ben Rund, senior director of product marketing and information quality systems at Informatica, a provider of data integration software. “Information is the key asset to drive growth with customer experience and save costs with the right analytics.”
At many organizations, several obstacles stand in the way of this goal. One is information overload — retailers need to discern which data will be most relevant to their business users and customers, Rund says.
The need for speed creates additional challenges for retailers. “Customers want everything now,” he says, and the impact of information from social networks adds to the complexities. Consumers increasingly “crowdsource” information such as product reviews from members of their social networks.
In fact, Rund estimates 90 percent of business-critical information can reside outside a retailer’s systems with suppliers, customers and others. “They’re all people who play a role in making a rich product offering,” he says. To capitalize on this information, retailers need a way to assemble, organize and edit the data.
As Murdoch’s developed e-commerce capabilities, Walker reviewed product information management systems, focusing on best-of-breed, enterprise systems that would be able to connect to the retailer’s other information systems and efficiently accommodate the vast differences between product categories. “You don’t want to miss anything, but you also don’t want to fill in irrelevant categories,” he says.
The system needed to be user-friendly and able to manage large volumes of product data in an accurate and timely manner. Finally, Walker and his colleagues wanted to develop a strong, comfortable relationship with the potential vendor’s professional services team.
‘Connecting the dots’
In the end, Murdoch’s decided on Informatica’s product management system. Retailers often turn to Informatica with several goals in mind, Rund says, among them improving the customer experience, optimizing supply chains and speeding time to market.
Informatica addresses these challenges in multiple ways, and streamlines the onboarding of suppliers by using data governance rules to automate and check the information provided. Vendors also can upload content via self-service supplier portals.
The system also can enrich and edit text in an automated manner by, for instance, mapping all colors to color values established by the retailer. Product information can be published to multiple channels, including e-commerce sites, brochures and digital signage for bricks-and-mortar locations. Some retailers even disseminate product information to call center employees.
“We’re connecting the dots between the product, customer and supplier,” providing better value and a richer experience, Rund says.
The Informatica system is currently available via license. Murdoch’s uses an in-house, server-based model that can be accessed via both desktop client software and a web-based portal. Implementation typically requires about seven or eight months, although Rund says it’s possible to accelerate the time frame.
Part of the implementation process requires examining the retailer’s product hierarchy, categories and attributes and bringing them into an established structure. Another is determining the rules that will govern the quality of data. Ultimately, the goal is to automate functions in full measure.
Murdoch’s collaborates with suppliers to gather as much information and digital assets as possible, which are organized and uploaded into the system. Overall, the speed with which product information can move online greatly increases. “It’s three to five times what you can do the traditional way,” Walker says.
Also key to a successful implementation is setting up processes and workflows that help the organization optimize the ways in which it works — that means considering which employees and roles are part of the processes, and whether the processes themselves will change.
As with many system implementations, it often makes sense to start with a small area and gain some experience and a “quick win,” Rund says.
Walker and his colleagues have continued to enhance Murdoch’s e-commerce capabilities and are planning to re-launch the site this fall.
Most items ordered online will be pulled from the company’s bricks-and-mortar stores. The shift will offer several benefits: New capabilities, such as the ability for customers to buy online and pick up their items in the stores, will become possible. “We are aligning the stores’ inventory with seamless shopping online,” Walker says.
In addition to e-commerce, Murdoch’s is planning to use Informatica to more efficiently design sales flyers, dynamically populate digital signage systems and provide accurate product information for employee training videos and materials, as well as provide information to the company’s business intelligence analytics systems. “It can enrich and support a lot of marketing channels,” says Walker, who characterizes it as “liquid marketing.” Once the information is in the system, it can go everywhere. “It’s one richly attributed source of product information.”
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