The Value of Consistent Extended Product Information for E-Commerce

— March 17, 2016

A standardized approach to listing and classifying products across all e-commerce platforms will allow  consumers to discover more accurate, authentic product information across any device, and retailers and brands to streamline operations and reduce costs through more interoperable, efficient data handling processes.

As modern day consumers, we often take extra steps to ensure we are making an informed purchase — especially when buying online. While booking a camping trip, for example, an outdoor enthusiast might be inspired to check out the latest styles in fleece vests from her favorite sporting goods store website. She might look at images, check out the color options, evaluate the material of the vest, think about the predicted weather for her trip, determine size, and ultimately, decide to purchase or not based on this information's ability to match up with her expectations.

Rich product content and images have become critically important to purchasing decisions, so much so that retailers and their suppliers need to ensure quality and consistency or they risk losing the sale. With the e-commerce explosion, brand owners are more focused than ever on providing their e-tail trading partners with consistent, standards-based extended product images and data attributes, which include more detailed product information (beyond just color and size) such as vendor collection name, collar type, lining material, and other attributes that give consumers a better view of that product.

Using a more automated and collaborative approach, supply chain partners can gather and present product images and data attributes in an accurate and consistent way, persistent throughout the consumer's experience and regardless of where the final transaction occurs. This approach benefits the consumer, the retailer and the brand owner. Consumers experience a seamless shopping experience and retailers and brand owners reduce their inefficiencies, while increasing their speed-to-market sales. 

Current processes expose lack of alignment 
Current information gathering processes run the gamut of communication methods between trading partners. Spreadsheets, email, snail mail, cloud-based systems and other portals are all being used to capture and share product data. Retailers that receive inconsistent or incomplete information from their suppliers may decide to guess on what the missing attribute data is 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 information online, possibly causing the information not to be appropriately timed with shipments.

Without a widespread, organized way to exchange e-commerce product attributes, the retail industry could risk adding unnecessary operational steps and creating confusion as well as causing their omnichannel selling strategy to appear disconnected and inefficient. Recently, a CFI Group study sponsored by eBay Enterprise, which surveyed people who call customer service, found just 19 percent of consumers found the information they received was always consistent with the information given online or in-store. This exposes a lack of alignment that can lead to a bad customer experience, lost business and decreasing loyalty.

Industry working together for efficiency
Retailers and manufacturers are working to solve this challenge by turning to the time-tested GS1 System of Standards, which have been used globally for more than 40 years to automatically and accurately identify, capture, and share product, service, and location information. This supports global supply chain visibility and efficiency so that anyone who wants any particular product information can understand it, no matter who or where they are.

Leveraging industry stakeholder collaboration via workgroup participation, GS1 US has facilitated the development of best practices and guidelines to support the retail industry's vision for better collection, harmonization and usage of product images and data attributes. Workgroup members have produced standardized definitions for a variety of product attributes; e.g., what is meant by "heel height." Because images play an increasingly influential role in the e-commerce browsing and shopping experience — especially on mobile devices and tablets — the workgroup also defined how images should be presented for optimal viewing, down to the pixel count. These best practices are evaluated periodically and are continually updated to keep up with e-tail's fast pace of change.

Envisioning a standardized approach to images
Visual representation of products is highly essential to sales. However, the complexities of image sharing among trading partners has gotten far too confusing without a common set of guidelines to govern technical requirements, delivery methods or a universal way to decide what, how or when visual imagery should be exchanged between partners.

"For each shoe we make, we may have as many as 70 images attached to it to meet the needs of our various retail partners," explains Coby Sparks, CIO and COO for J. Reneé, a brand manufactured by the J. Reneé Group headquartered in Carrollton, Texas. "With as many as 60 styles produced in any given season, you can see how the need for guidelines was at the top of our wish list."

From the retailer's perspective, the problem is further exacerbated due to the sheer number of images they must aggregate from each brand they work with. The process is far too time-consuming and manual, but the companies all want to remain committed to obtaining the right photographs needed to sell product. Often, if a retailer cannot get the image from their vendor for a certain product, they will wait for the shipment of merchandise and then send items out to be photographed, which causes time-to-market delays and adversely impacts sales revenue. 

The delays and duplication of effort are greatly diminished with the industry's agreement on a standardized way to present images and data attributes. Guidelines for images have been developed and are also continually evaluated and updated. Though it seems simple, the agreement to state ".jpeg" as the preferred electronic format, for example, has been extremely helpful to retail trading partners. Clear instructions for color designation, sizing in dimensions and pixels, clipping path, backgrounds, orientation, white space and other technical specifications have also helped streamline these processes tremendously.

A common approach for listing and classifying e-commerce products
When ultimately providing the consumer with optimal information online, where the proverbial "rubber meets the road" is on how this data is specifically represented and classified for potentially numerous places online — search engines, retailer websites, brand websites and more. Improving this process is the key to helping time-starved consumers find the products they seek.

To help cut down on the many inconsistent ways products can be searched for online, GS1 US is also bringing the industry together to collaborate on the development of the new GS1 US Simple Product Listing standard. This is a common, search-friendly language that web and mobile applications can use to reduce item setup time, complexity, and cost through simplified data handling. Trading partners can use this standard to speed up and automate product classification for both new and existing products — gaining efficiencies without losing the ability to create their own unique consumer experiences with their existing internal systems.

Through this common approach for listing and classifying products across all e-commerce platforms, consumers can discover more accurate, authentic product information across any device, and retailers and brands can streamline operations and reduce costs through more interoperable, efficient data-handling processes.

Trusted product content is critical to driving the consumer's discovery, decision and shopping experience. Inefficiencies caused by proprietary systems and communication methods, coupled with the lack of standardized product information makes listing a product for e-commerce sale an enormous operational obstacle. Many major brands and retailers are already on board with adopting a standards-based approach to industry collaboration and as the results are shown, more are planning to adopt these efficiencies.

This work to define, standardize and organize information will enhance a company's value to the consumer and contribute to a faster, more profitable e-commerce experience.


Melanie Nuce is the vice president of apparel and general merchandise at GS1 US. She can be reached at mnuce@gs1us.org.

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