SEMA News - December 2010

Get Your Product Information Properly Formatted

By Steve Campbell

  SEMA News-December 2010-Business
If properly managed and maintained, electronic data systems can eliminate ordering errors and returns and increase bottom-line profits. The key is to use standardized data that allows the computer systems of all participants—manufacturers, distributors and jobbers/retailers—to read and recognize product information.  
   
This series of SEMA News stories is based on the idea of using reliable and repeatable methods to ensure business success. In coming issues, we will delve into a range of topics aimed at developing Best Practices through knowledge, motivation and skills.

Electronic cataloging and inventory controls have revolutionized the way business partners communicate with one another and how they provide information to consumers. The Internet is an incredibly efficient way for end users to find products, educate themselves about product benefits and specifications, and find the best retail option available. If properly managed and maintained, electronic product information systems can reduce ordering errors and returns and increase bottom-line profits. The key is to put product data into an industry-standard format that allows the computer systems of all participants—manufacturers, distributors and jobber/retailers—to read and recognize product information. That includes everything from part numbers and pricing to descriptions and dimensions.

“Data standards consist of two segments,” said Scott O’Toole, principal and founder of RPM Data Services and a member of the SEMA Business Technology Committee (BTC). “The first, called product information exchange standards or PIES, is information that is needed to buy, sell and market products, and the second, called AAIA catalog enhanced standard or ACES, is fitment data used to find a part for a specific vehicle. Since many of the products in the specialty-equipment industry are universal parts and have no fitment data, the BTC recommends that manufacturers concentrate initially on their PIES data. You cannot sell parts using ACES alone. PIES needs to come first.”

SEMA and the Automotive Warehouse Distributors Association (AWDA) have published a list of the 60 most-desired fields of product information that all manufacturers should provide to their distribution and sales partners. Information about the
recommendations can be found on the AWDA website.

  SEMA News-December 2010-Business 
The SEMA PIES Training Template includes information that manufacturers may use to familiarize themselves with the PIES field names, language restrictions and information that should be included in each field.
   
SEMA also provides a PIES Training Template found on the association’s website here. The template includes information that manufacturers may use to familiarize themselves with the PIES field names, language restrictions and the information that should be included in each field. The PIES and ACES data standards outline the type and structure of information to be shared, but they also include delivery standards—how that data should be transmitted. Both are meant to be delivered as extensible markup language (XML) documents, which are similar to hypertext markup language (HTML), the principle language used to create webpages. To get an idea of what it looks like, open a webpage and then click on “Source” under the browser’s “View” menu. You’ll find that the language is quite complex. That’s why many manufacturers opt to use a flat file—a simple text-only file with no formatting, such as italics, boldface or colors—to transmit their data. Such files should be created using ASCII text with the fields separated by a “pipe” symbol (|) rather than commas, since commas may also be used grammatically in product descriptions. The other option is to contact one of the technology companies or data services listed on www.SEMA.org/btc or to acquire specialized software also available through these resources. In any case, it’s best not to use Word or PDF documents, which can inadvertently include embedded formatting.

Undoubtedly, the most difficult part of the entire process is assembling all of the data needed to populate even those 60 basic data fields.

“First, take inventory of where different information about a part is stored,” advised Gigi Ho, founder of Digital Performance Inc. and also a member of the BTC. “Engineering may have specifications; sales and marketing probably has descriptions and pricing; and shipping may have weights and dimensions. Once you know where your data is, it’s easier to build a process to regularly gather it into a central area where one or two people can be in charge of normalizing it
for distribution.”

Some of the information requested may seem odd or even unreasonable at first. But there are very good reasons for including it.

“There will be times when a manufacturer might question why a distributor would need a certain piece of data,” said Bob Moore, chairman of the BTC and co-owner of J&B Service. “For instance, even though a product may be made in the United States, the distributor may ship it to Canada, so country-of-origin information will be mandatory. International trade requires tariff harmonization codes, so you’ll need to put those into your electronic files for bills of lading that go into the customs format. If you make multiple applications of one type of product—brake pads, for instance—some of the same codes may apply to all of them, so you establish those once and you’re done with those fields.”

After a company has completed all of the fields for all of its products, only occasional updating may be needed, such as for pricing. And that is one of the major advantages of an industry data pool—a centralized location where manufacturer product information is collected, validated and made available to resellers.

  SEMA News-December 2010-Business
The BTC and the SEMA education department continually provide webinars and seminars on data standards throughout the year and especially at the SEMA Show, and the Street Performance Council puts on a Business Technology Symposium each year. SEMA is committed to providing as much guidance as possible for any company that needs assistance with data standardization.  
   
“Once you’ve got all of your data into the standardized formats, all you have to do is send changes to the data pool,” Moore said. “The pool will update your full file, send you back a revised master file with all of the changes completed, and also send that file to anybody who’s buying from you. The key element is the ability to do a single update to a single point and communicate the update to everybody you need to in a matter of a few hours. It really is just that simple.”

O’Toole said that product data should be part of every manufacturer’s daily business practices. From product launch on, all of the elements of standardized data should be built into the production flow.

“Even information about obsolete products should be included in order to cut down on the number of unnecessary phone calls and e-mail inquiries to the factory,” he explained. “Industry best practices dictate that superseded or obsolete parts should be noted in the data file output for a minimum of five years.”

O’Toole also pointed out that both PIES and ACES are “living” standards, meaning that they can change as business needs in the marketplace evolve.

“The best way for manufacturers to keep up with these changes is to align themselves with qualified solution providers who can keep them informed of recent changes as they happen,” he said. “Some of the items currently under review are the Imaging Best Practices document, the expansion/standardization of product-specific attributes, the updating of the ‘prohibited’ character table, and expanding PIES to accommodate changes coming from NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] regarding product county-of-origin declarations.”

Ho also noted that one of the original standards, the AAIA’s make/model table that was initiated in 1997, will be discontinued in 2012, so manufacturers should use the ACES standard for new products and migrate their existing make/model tables as soon as possible.

“Companies can really help each other—especially the data receivers—by using the data standards as maintained by the industry associations,” Ho said. “Modifications to the standards that might suit one receiver’s specific needs distort the standards and complicate data management for the manufacturers.”

And unwarranted complexity is the last thing any business needs when it comes to data standards. The members of the SEMA BTC understand that and are committed to providing as much help and guidance as possible for any company that needs it.

“Contact a BTC member if you need assistance,” Moore said. “We may know of a company that has gone through the same process that you’re embarking on. The BTC and SEMA education department continually provide webinars and seminars on these topics, both throughout the year and especially at the SEMA Show. These sessions are archived and available online for SEMA members. The Street Performance Council (SPC) also puts on a Business Technology Symposium each year. Don’t hesitate to call or e-mail any of us, because data standards help all of us to sell more products.”  

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