Guest interview with Jorij Abraham: author of the first book about PIM and founder of E-commerce Foundation
Jorij Abraham is the founder of the E-commerce Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping organizations and industries improve their e-commerce activities. He advises companies on e-commerce strategy, Omnichannel development and product information management. He also works as Director Research & Advise for Ecommerce Europe.
He’s written a fine book about PIM but don’t expect a technical book at all! This is what marketing teams, merchandisers, product category teams, digital strategist, should be reading.
Like him or not, when he talks you’d better listen!
Michele: Let’s start with a view on the PIM market. Where are we globally?
Jorij: We are just starting. Most retailers still do not realize how important product information is to sell digital. In some countries the expectation is that in 2020 30 – 50% of all consumer goods are bought online. PIM no longer is an option. It is essential to be successful now and in the upcoming years.
M.: What was the main inspiration behind the book? It is definitely the first book about PIM but I am sure the motivation runs a bit deeper than that.
J.: The fact that there is very little in depth information available about the subject triggered me to write the book. However, I got a lot of help from experts from Unic and the different software vendors and was very happy with all the great research Heiler had already done in the area.
M.: Who should be reading your book?
J.: I wrote the book for a broad audience; managers, employees responsible for product information management, marketers, merchandisers, and even students! There are chapters covering the basics and how a PIM can help a company on a strategic, tactical and operational level. Few later chapters are devoted to helping product information officers implement a PIM system and choose the right PIM solution.
M.: I see that in your book you cover a good number of big PIM vendors. What is the future for those who target mid-market businesses?
J.: If you look at the overall market I think we will see a large shake out in the industry. We will have very big players like Amazon, Ebay, Walmart and lots of niche players. The medium sized business will have a difficult time to survive. All will be in need for a PIM system however.
M.: What’s your take on the different PIM vendors out there? I personally see different flavours of PIM such as those more commerce friendly, as opposed to those more ERP friendly, or just minimalist PIM solutions.
J.: In the book I discuss several solutions. Some are for companies starting with PIM others are top of the line. Especially for larger firms with lots of product information to manage I recommend to make a larger investment. Low-end PIM solutions are a good choice if you expect your needs will remain simple. However if you know that within two or three years you will have 100.000 products, in multiple languages with lots of attributes, do not start with a simple solution. Within 1.5 years you will have to migrate again and the costs of migration are not worth the licence costs saved.
J.: There are many strategic, tactical and operational benefits. Managers have difficulties understanding the ROI because it is indirect. PIM can improve traffic to your site, increase conversion ratio, and reduce returns.
M.: Would it be easier to promote PIM in combination to a WCMS platform? More generally, is there a case to promote PIM as part of a greater strategic thrust?
J.: I personally prefer systems which are great at doing what they are meant to do. However it very much depends on the needs of the company. Combining a PIM with a WCMS are mixing two solutions with very different goals. Hybris is an example of a complete solutions. If you want to buy everything at once, it is a good choice. However what I like very much about the Heiler/Informatica solution is that is great at doing what is says it does. Especially the user friendliness of the system is a big plus. Why? Because if a PIM fails it usually is because of the low user adaptation.
M.: What would you suggest to Australian retailers who are clearly reluctant to adopt PIM primarily because of limited local references (at least on large scale)?
J.: Retail in Australia is going the same way as everywhere else. Digital commerce will be a fact of life and a PIM is essential to be successful online. Look at the proof in the Asia, Europe and the USA. PIM is here to stay.
M.: Is PIM now what ERP was in the 90s and CRM at the beginning of the millennium? In other words, will it ever become a commodity?
J.: I think so. But we are really at the start of PIM. CRM is anno 2014 not yet really a part of most IT architectures. So we have a long way to go…
M.: Let’s talk about the influence exerted by analyst firms such as Gartner, Forrester, and Ventana. What’s your view on this? Are they moving the market? They put a lot of effort in trying to differentiate themselves. For example, see how Gartner MDM Quadrant for Products combine MDM and PIM players.
J.:I think the research agencies in general do not get PIM yet to the full extent. It is still a niche market and they are combining solutions which in my view is not helping the business and IT user. I have seen companies buy an MDM solution expecting to support their PIM processes. MDM is very different from PIM although its goals overlap. I often see that PIM has much more end-users, requires faster publication processes. There are only a few solutions in the market which really combine MDM and PIM in a sensible way.
M.: Looking at your book, I noticed that you spend a great deal of effort in unearthing what I’d call ‘PIM core concepts”. However, while the core concepts are stable, being a technology-enabled discipline PIM will undergo ongoing enhancements. What is your view on this?
J.: This is a tough question. In fact, few chapters in my book may go out of date soon. For example, PIM providers are popping up and it’s hard to keep up. On a more important note, I also see the following trends:
a) The cloud is going to have a fundamental impact on PIM solutions. It will hard to sell an on-premise solution to companies that are very much focused on their core business and outsourcing everything else (e.g. Retailers)
b) I see companies working much more intensively to collect and disseminate accurate product information. This is costly and operational inefficient if it is undertaken in isolation. In fact, there’s room to improve the overall supply chain by integrating product information across different parties, e.g. suppliers, manufactures, and retailers.
c) Finally, I see the emergence of the social as another key development in the PIM space. Just think about the contribute that consumers are providing when they shop online and share their experience on the social platforms or provide a product recommendation and/or ranking. This is product information and PIMs need to incorporate that in the overall product enrichment.
M.: Thank you Jorij. This has been a fantastic opportunity for me and my readers to learn more about you and the great work you are doing.
J.: It is great that you are putting so much effort in sharing information about product information management. Only in such a way companies can start to understand the value of PIM and increase both sales as well as reduce costs.
As promised at the end of one of my recent posts, let’s have a closer look at the long tail approach and how PIM supports it. The driver for the long-tail model is customers expectations. In fact, they demand an increasingly larger and broader assortment of products through various online channels given that the shelf space is no longer a concern. The key insight here for independent retailers is that expanded offerings and selection can reveal demand that was otherwise not known to exist.
The benefit of a long-tail strategy is that products in the long tail can be sold against a higher margin. Aberdeen reports up to 29 % higher profits due to higher product margins in the long-tail assortment.
The challenges for many companies, however, is the actual management of large assortments. The graph below shows the relationship with the size of a company’s assortments and having a PIM system.
It is remarkable to see that when the assortment increases to over one million SKUs there are no companies that do not have a PIM system.
How PIM supports the long tail has been clearly highlighted by Rolph Heiler, founder of Heiler Software (which has recently been acquired by Informatica):
Assortments are often restricted by the fact the product data cannot be efficiently maintained. A Product Information Management (PIM) systems enables dealers to setup and manage extremely large assortments, without rising costs for expanding their assortments.
End quote. The point is that for the first time ‘dealers’ are given a process and a tool to onboard data from suppliers and store it centrally before it is prepared and enriched for presentation purposes. However, as aptly pointed out by J. Abraham in his upcoming book (see references below), implementing a long-tail strategy entails much more than just onboarding data from suppliers to your PIM system, and the ability to technically manage larger assortments. More specifically, he observes that…
Processes have to be set up to manage the information in the PIM system. Price mechanisms have to be set up to manage the margin for which products are sold. Just adding 30 % margin to all products might be a simple thing to do, but it does not take into consideration the actual logistical costs, perceived product value by the customer, and competitors’ prices. Likewise, when suppliers stop selling a product, the product also has to be removed from the assortment of the wholesaler or retailer.
Once a product is sold, the product has to be ordered, possibly repackaged at the company’s warehouse and delivered to the customer. To do this, logistical processes have to be set up in the ERP system, especially when the ERP system does not yet know the product just sold. With the external and internal processes set up right, companies are able to expand their offering very fast. WarmteService for example was able to expand its offering from 20,000 products to 150,000 products in less than 1.5 years
End quote. This is a broader and more accurate view of the processes that need to be put in place to implement a successful long-tail strategy. As Ted Hurlbut put it, “The Long Tail is not an argument merely to carry broader assortments. It is not an argument to expand into unrelated categories that stretch customer’s expectations and the retailer’s core expertise. It is not just about capturing the add-on or plus sale. It is rather a demonstration that there is business to be done in carefully selected items that deepen assortments in a retailer’s niche that appeal specifically to the customer’s imagination.”
In conclusion, it should be clear that the long-tail model is a compelling territory for innovative customer experiences*. PIM has a respectable place in the model insofar as it allows retailers to quickly respond to product demands by facilitating the creation of relevant assortments in a timely and efficient manner.
Drop shipping is an interesting example of long-tail strategy that will be analysed in one of the upcoming posts. Stay tuned!
- J. Abraham, Product Information Management, Management for Professionals, Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014
- Aberdeen Group, The Instant Power of All-Channel PIM: Increased Sales and Competitiveness, December 2011.
- PIM for long-tail, Heiler whitepaper
*I am not a blind believer of The Long Tail. I see few grey areas that various authors have spelt out greatly. If there’s interest, I will plan to extend on this fascinating subject.
Much is being said about how quickly information is stacking up which is creating quite the paradox. On one hand, information is being gathered in spades to enable quick problem solving. On the other, information is locked in disparate systems, hindering the very reason why information was collected in the first place. How can you turn information into actionable knowledge?
I lean on David Aeker for defense. In his Spanning Silos, Aeker convincingly pointed out that a silo is a metaphor for “organizational units that contain their own management team and talent and lack of motivation…to work with or even communicate with other units.” Hence, the very idea of collaboration and flow of information is challenged, resulting in products and solutions that claim to solve the problem but in reality further segregate the knowledge base.
A Unified Approach
What we need is a unified paradigm for capturing, storing, organizing and searching content as well as people. Interestingly, PIM is an application approach to aggregate product data in order to transform it into information relevant to multiple channels. This may appear to result in another silo but that is a very shaky way to look at PIM. PIM is more than an application to master product data, PIM is all about collaboration.
We should remember that creation of product information is all about the process of bringing together cross-departmental contributions that lead to the final artifact. Given the nature of product information, it is more than a workflow scenario that assists the collection of information at the right time from the right source. In fact, product information touches the entire enterprise. For instance, PIM supports transactional systems such as order fulfillment and warehouse management, or it can be more merchandise-oriented by supporting multichannel marketing. It crosses to the enterprise as well. Think about how reviews and feedback on products will impact the information that is dynamically attached to products.
The enemy of silos is fertile communication across the board, which is reflected down to operations. With all the key teams working on the same platform, PIM facilitates a collaborative environment where real teams made up of people from multiple departments sit and work on the same construction site by promoting cross-fertilization, immediate appreciation across department and a quick turnaround.
Image source: http://www.winnersfdd.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cultural-Silos-generic.jpg
Product Information Management (PIM) is an investment, not a “cost.” This is so important it’s worth repeating: “PIM is an investment.” If you are a retailer of any size (small or big, it makes little difference), it’s likely your most painful challenges include the following:
- Lost sales from out-of-stock issues
- Lost time haggling over return disputes
- Squandered hours reconciling product information promotion discrepancies across all channels
And, if you’re comfortable experiencing the following, then no change is needed:
- Slower Time-To-Market for for new product introductions and the corresponding wasted dollars
- Wasted time spent relaying basic product information to customers and partners
- Overall brand erosion
However, for those who want to embark on a journey toward redemption, I will use this post to lay a good foundation and to demystify PIM.
Here are 6 reasons to consider transforming your business using PIM. Note that the priority order will vary by industry and situation.
1) PIM for Operational efficiency
This really boils down to a reduction in the number of call center questions regarding basic item information, a reduction in the number of instances when inventory levels are insufficient, and a reduction in the number of purchase order errors, resulting in incorrect shipments or adjustments.
2) PIM for New Product Introduction (NPI)
Introducing a new product requires the coordinated efforts of dozens of internal and external staff. It can be a fairly complex task. Even a simple product may require hundreds of attributes, all derived from multiple systems residing within and outside the organization.
3) PIM to Reduce the “Time to Market”
Studies have shown that high-performing companies generate, on average, 61 percent of their sales from successful introductions of new products and services. PIM will help you have a streamlined process for creating new products and distributing them to eCommerce and other channels in the ecosystem. The faster, the better. Why? Well, you will have them before anyone else and secondly there will be more time to sell them.
4) PIM for Business growth and improved customer satisfaction
The instantaneous nature of online retail impacts consistency and adds an additional layer of complexity to the management of product information. Customer satisfaction is (also) correlated to rich, contextual, and consistent product information across sales channels. Companies that lack this discipline experience brand erosion with consequental detrimental impact on overall business performance.
5) PIM to Improve your supplier performance
How would you answer your CFO if she asked for the average cost to on-board a product from a supplier? All things considered, my bet is that it would be in the neighborhood of $500-$700. But even if it is $200 you are still in deep water. In fact, with a bit of math you’ll figure out the incidence of this cost when considering the tens of thousands of SKUs that are introduced into the market every year. Forward-thinking retailers are leveraging an integrated supplier portal to enhance supplier collaboration. This saves precious time and manpower, often bringing down that cost to less than $5.
6) PIM for Omni-channel enablement
A retail omni-channel strategy cannot not contemplate the management of product information. This is because retailers need to collect information from multiple sources, optimizing content and facilitating timely distribution of content across multiple channels. Very often, though, information in stores, eCommerce sites, mobile apps, and print catalogs just don’t match up. Often, it is difficult to connect products and customers, resulting in poor customer experiences. This is a large topic that will be covered in upcoming posts.
Looking for more information on how PIM can actually lay the foundations to deliver on these promises? There is more in my previous blog posts here, here, and here. There is also a SlideShare presentation here. Finally, we have a new eBook called The Informed Purchase Journey available here.
Over the past few years, we have assisted an increasing shift in customer behavior. Pervasive internet connectivity – along with the exponential adoption of mobile devices – has enabled shoppers to research and purchase products of all kinds, anytime and anywhere, using a combination of touch points they find most convenient. This is not a passing fad.
Consumers expect rich data and images to make purchase choices; business users require access to analytical data in order to make mission-critical decisions. These demands for information are driving a need for improved product data availability and accuracy. And this is changing the way businesses go to market.
A staggering number of stores and manufacturers are reforming their models to response to this challenge. The direct-to-consumer (DTC) model, while not new, is rapidly becoming the center stage to address these challenges. The optimal DTC model will vary depending on specific and contextual business objectives. However, there are many strategic benefits to going direct, but the main objectives include growing sales, gaining control over pricing, strengthening the brand, getting closer to consumers, and testing out new products and markets.
It is my contention that while the DTC model is gaining the deserved attention, much remains to be done. In fact, among many challenges that DTC poses, the processes and activities associated with sourcing product information, enriching product data to drive sales and lower returns, and managing product assortments across all channels loom large. More precisely, the challenges that need to be overcome are better exemplified by these points:
- Products have several variations to support different segments, markets, and campaigns.
- Product components, ingredients, care information, environmental impact data and other facets of importance to the customer.
- People are visual. As a result, easy website navigation is essential. Eye-catching images that highlight your products or services (perhaps as they’re being performed or displayed as intended) is an effective way to visually communicate information to your customers and make it easier for them to evaluate options. If information and pictures are readily accessible, customers are more likely to engage.
- Ratings, reviews and social data, stored within the product’s record rather than in separate systems.
- Purchasing and sales measurements, for example, sales in-store, return rates, sales velocity, product views online, as well as viewing and purchasing correlations are often held across several systems. However, this information is increasingly needed for search and recommendation.
The importance of product data and its use, combined with the increased demands on business as a result of inefficient, non-scaling approaches to data management, provide an imperative to considering a PIM to ‘power’ cross-channel retail. Once established, PIM users repeatedly report higher ROI. It is likely that we’ll see PIM systems rank alongside CRM, ERP, CMS, order management and merchandising systems as the pillars of cross-channel retailing at scale.
For all these reasons, choosing the right PIM strategy (and partner) is now a key decision. Get this decision wrong and it could become an expensive mistake.