SEMA News—January 2012
By Steve Campbell
Finding Profit in Clean Data
Bob Moore is the co-founder and current chairman of SEMA’s Business Technology Committee and a tireless advocate for the use of standardized data and building a shared data system.
SEMA News: When we spoke last year (see “A Few Words With Bob Moore” in the December 2010 issue of SEMA News; you were adamant about the need for the industry to embrace data standards, particularly the Product Information Exchange Standard (PIES) and the Aftermarket Catalog Enhanced Standard (ACES). Could you refresh us about those systems?
Bob Moore: ACES and PIES are the formats that the replacement-parts industry has adopted for sharing data. Even the acronym PIES refers to sharing: Product Information Exchange Standard. It is a way to share information about the products themselves between trading partners. While the standardized formats make it very easy to translate information into an electronic document, ACES and PIES do not assure valid and accurate data. They are just standardized ways to publish and share information. Accuracy is absolutely up to the creator of the product, who is also the creator of the data.
As the chairman of the BTC, I have sometimes been criticized for being so singularly focused on getting the data right and creating methods for sharing it. And I plead guilty, because if the data isn’t available and correct, it doesn’t matter how slick your website is or how well your searches are optimized or how hip your social media is. If the data isn’t there, or it is wrong, your customers can’t find the parts they want.
I fully understand people’s frustration over why we’re talking more about mobile applications, cloud computing, localized advertising and those kinds of cutting-edge things, but without accurate, shareable data, the value of those things is undermined. It’s like buying the best Blu-ray player on the market but not having discs to put in it.
SN: You’ve also been outspoken regarding how electronic catalogs are formatted, especially concerning automotive specialty-
equipment parts. Where do you see the pitfalls with the current forms of electronic catalogs?
BM: Electronic cataloging, as it is understood by almost everybody in the industry, is driven by year, make and model searches. That’s fine when you’re dealing with basic replacement parts, but it’s a little more problematic when you’re dealing with specialty and performance products. We have more complicated data issues than standard replacement parts do. Sure, we have application considerations, but more often we have product and performance considerations that have to be taken into account.
We need the ability to do different kinds of lookups for the SEMA community. If, for example, you’re building a high-performance engine and you need to run a cooling hose close to the exhaust manifold, you may need to search for a hose that will perform at extreme temperatures, that accommodates particular types of fluids, or that has a specific internal diameter. Or perhaps you need something with all of those characteristics and maybe for a particular brand. The classic year, make and model doesn’t cut it in these instances. But because the technology we use has been adapted primarily from the replacement-parts industry, that’s how lookups have been historically done. SEMA is out to change all that.
The fact is, we all lose sales if we can’t answer specific questions about fitment or finish or performance. We need to be able to do these sorts of enhanced product searches that are rare in the replacement-parts environment. This is something we are working very hard on in developing the SEMA Data Cooperative. The BTC is going through every product category in the SEMA segment to develop searches that are meaningful to our customers. If you are shopping for an air filter, for instance, what are the most important searchable product attributes? You might care about how small a particle you can filter, airflow rates and other specific performance data that can have an affect on other components in your engine.
To obtain that, you have to have category-specific experts—manufacturers—who can list the important search criteria for a whole variety of parts. We will define each of those by product segment and put them into a SEMA standardized form in order to optimize the selling of those products. Again, though, you have to have the data to be able to search for those items.
Electronic cataloging is currently driven by year, make and model searches. Moore believes that the specialty-equipment industry needs the ability to do different kinds of lookups.
BM: Yes, it is the same thing. We’ve changed how we refer to the industry initiative in part because of how the initiative has evolved. It really is a cooperative effort by the trade association in conjunction with the creators of data—the manufacturers—and the receivers of data—resellers and consumers. The SEMA Data Cooperative will help the industry make more information about more products available so consumers can make better and more informed decisions about buying our products. It will also make it easier for the makers of parts to populate more places with product information—more websites and more point-of-sale systems.
Ours is very much a discretionary business. If somebody can’t find the product he wants, either online or in a store, the money that might have been spent on a performance part could be easily diverted into a new TV, a barbeque grill or any other avocational product. You only have so much time to make the sale, and if the customer can’t find what he’s looking for, he’s apt to spend his money elsewhere.
SN: What about quick-response codes (QRC). In this age of smartphones and camera-enhanced technology, can they help in this process when they’re used in ads?
BM: They can be very valuable—if they’re used correctly. But if all a QRC does is take you to the manufacturer’s home-page, what benefit do you really deliver? You could probably find that information quicker by just entering the manufacturer’s name in a search engine. If, on the other hand, you have a QRC on a product, such as a serpentine belt, and the code takes you to a video on how to install that belt onto a specific engine, that’s a different story. That makes QRCs extremely valuable.
Unfortunately, some businesses think it’s cool to have QRCs in their ads but don’t really use them to their full potential. If consumers find that they are repeatedly just dumped at a manufacturer’s homepage and left to dig out the information they are looking for, they will stop scanning the codes. It’s very much the boy who cried wolf; eventually, the townspeople
Same thing with mobile computing or cloud computing. These are all fabulous things, wonderful tools. But absent good data and the ability to quickly provide deep dives into product attributes or services, such as installation videos, they’re not really living up to their potential.
SN: The SEMA Data Cooperative and the building of a system for comprehensive searchable product attributes is obviously a huge undertaking. How is it all going to be paid for?
BM: The SEMA Board of Directors and SEMA staff have identified this as a critical strategic issue for us to attack as an industry. This is exactly the sort of thing that a trade association ought to be investing in. It will potentially expand the market for our parts and can create multiple paybacks to its constituencies. Within certain parameters, the Board of Directors has authorized the funding to set the standards and to create the broad infrastructure to accommodate the system, but it will require each manufacturer to also make an investment on their own part to ensure that their data is accurate, shareable and complete.
We can’t do that for them. We can tell them the smart items to concentrate on, and we can show them how to do it and how to get it into compliant formats. We can even create the repository and a method to share it in the receiver-required formats. But still, every fuel pump manufacturer has to be able to say this part number pumps this many gallons per hour, and every fuel-filter manufacturer has to be able to say this filter allows and filters this size particulate matter, and then every fuel-injection company has got to be able to say this is the required fuel delivery with particulate matter no larger
It is critical to get all of the information into a shareable condition so that when a consumer is shopping for all three, every pertinent retail website has the comprehensive information. Otherwise, that consumer has to log onto three, four or five different websites to track down all the data. If we put all this information together in a single source, retail websites will be able to sell complete systems, even though the components come from different manufacturers.
Mobile computing, cloud computing and QRCs are all wonderful tools, Moore says, but absent good data, they’re not really living up to their potential.
BM: Bingo! If there is a reliable source for information on all product lines, it is going to spur whole new enterprises. If we do a good job of stimulating this industry to get its data together, to get populated and get it in shareable condition, there will be an explosion of applications that will enable people to do all kinds of cool stuff. I’ll give you one example:
There are some products that are very difficult to sell online. Typically these products require a high degree of customization for consumers to get products exactly the way they require them. A good example is seat covers. Some conditions are based on the vehicle, so of course its year, make and model matter, but so does whether you have a bench or bucket seats. Then there are myriad preferences the consumer has: Do they want fabric or leather? In what color? Do they want it embroidered with a particular logo on the headrest?
Software developers have developed something called configuration software that streamlines and automates the process of ordering such items. Without this software, it would be virtually impossible to sell such items online. But again, configuration software won’t work without the availability of accurate, shareable and complete data.
SN: It would seem that the industry should be hopping up and down to get at this type of system.
BM: A robust SEMA Data Cooperative would create the same type of potential for online buzz that the SEMA Show does in Las Vegas each year. It’s exactly the kind of thing that the association ought to be investing in.
SN: So in the long run, they are not only going to be sharing their product information with more channel partners and consumers more effectively, but they are also going to be able to do so at a lower cost than if they came up with their own, independent systems.
BM: That is the ultimate goal of the model. Using any technology—QRCs, mobile computing, localized online advertising, any of it—the fuel that powers it is the information that you have available about your products. That is the reason that I am such an advocate for getting the data right first. It just means that all of the other stuff that we are trying to do will work better.