In the early days of ecommerce, you had a handful of images and attributes for each product. You had a handful of websites selling these products. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a big deal if product images and attributes, and methods for sending and receiving this data, varied from retailer to retailer and supplier to supplier.
Times have changed. The cost and complexity added to the retail supply chain and the high expectations of the end consumer have led to an industry-wide push for uniformity in how product images and attributes are defined and shared. Spearheading this movement is the GS1 US Product Images and Data Attributes Workgroup, which was created to enable retailers and suppliers to develop a consistent, standards-based model for the management and exchange of product data. It is a subgroup of the GS1 US Apparel and General Merchandise Initiative, a broader industry group that defines business challenges and opportunities and organizes members to explore solutions and create adoption plans based on GS1 Standards. GS1 US launched the Initiative upon the merger with the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Solutions® (VICS) in 2012. Today more than 130 suppliers, distributors, retailers and logistics providers are participating members.
"There are three pillars of quality product information – completeness, accuracy and consistency," said Melanie Nuce, Vice President, Apparel and General Merchandise, GS1 US. "All are required to support a true omni-channel operation and deliver the best possible customer experience. The simplest way to ensure that product information is complete, accurate and consistent is through standardization."
The business case for standardizing product images and attributes is rooted in common sense. Creating and sharing product information between trading partners becomes painfully expensive and slow when you don't have a single version of the truth and a scalable, consistent process in place.
For example, there are seven standard photos for a shoe. If 10 ten retailers have different image requirements in terms of size, file format, resolution, background color and more, the supplier will have to manage 70 images for one shoe instead of seven. That means 70 images have to be named, stored, organized and distributed. If the supplier decides to introduce 40 new shoes in a variety of colors, the number of images will quickly increase to the thousands.
"When standards are used, we cut one set of images per product," said Coby Sparks, CIO and COO, J.Reneé, a Remac Company, and co-chair of the GS1 US Product Images and Data Attributes Workgroup. "Instead of e-mailing different images to different retailers, we make a single set of images available via FTP. The ability to automate is a tremendous benefit to the supplier."
From the retailer's perspective, GS1 Standards provide quality assurance and make it possible to automate the process of receiving images. Previously, a retailer would manually gather images from each supplier, edit to ensure the proper size and format, and match those images to the right products. GS1 Standards simplify and automate the exchange of data.
Similarly, standard definitions for product attributes benefit both retailers and suppliers. Without GS1 Standards, data is typically cut and pasted from disparate supplier systems into spreadsheets and emailed to retailers, who then have to manually enter product data into their systems.
When GS1 Standards are used, the long, error-prone process of manual data acquisition on the part of the retailer is replaced by automation, which can be as simple as selecting a product and pushing a button to populate data. Standard attributes also enable suppliers to create comprehensive product descriptions that contribute to brand consistency across a variety of retail stores and channels.
"Being able to use a standard definition for each attribute provides us with accurate, comprehensive, and reliable product information," said Anita Spence, Director of Vendor Relations at Dillard's, and co-chair of the GS1 US Product Images and Data Attributes Workgroup. "Instead of manually pulling attributes from individual suppliers that use different types of spreadsheets and different attribute titles and meanings, we can automatically fill in attributes based on the standards."
Dimensional data is also critical to shipping efficiency and optimizing operations in fulfillment centers. Accurate dimensional data tells you if merchandise should be packed automatically or manually. For example, the wrong dimensional data could lead a packer to incorrectly place a product in an autobagger, which would grind the packing process to a halt and delay shipments.
While pressure to reduce cost and maximize efficiency will always be high, this is ultimately about satisfying the consumer. Today's empowered consumer, with instant access to unlimited information, demands complete, accurate and consistent product data to make informed purchase decisions, regardless of where or how they shop for a particular product.
Without comprehensive product data, from size and color to country of origin, there is an increased risk that consumers won't find the information they need to make a confident purchase. Missed sales, returns and chargebacks are all too common when images and/or attributes are unclear or missing.
The right product information helps to overcome consumer doubt about whether the product they see online is the product they will receive. It helps consumers replicate the "touch and feel" experience of shopping in the store. Complete, accurate data also makes a product more searchable. When the consumer uses search functionality to find merchandise based on style, color, occasion and other criteria, those searches are often dependent on robust product descriptions.
As e-commerce and mobile commerce continue to explode, the need for uniformity in product information will only grow. In the near future, it is expected that standard images and attributes and related best practices will be the accepted if not required way of doing business.
GS1 US and RVCF encourage all retailers and suppliers to get involved. The GS1 US Product Images and Data Attributes Workgroup has defined 62 product attributes with the release of their first guideline, and is in the process of defining more than 100 product attributes for a second guideline release due out later this year. The goal is to have these definitions validated by as large a group as possible to ensure widespread adoption. Make your voice heard, collaborate with your trading partners, and start taking steps now to lay the foundation for standardized images and attributes within your organization.
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