The Product Data (R)evolution

SEMA News—February 2013

BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY
By Jon Wyly

The Product Data (R)evolution

Jon WylyI often like to refer to the development cycle of the Internet in terms of “dog years.” That is, for every year that traditional business processes mature, it feels like the Internet has advanced seven. For the uninitiated, it’s a crazy, unpredictable ride that seems to push forward at a rate fast enough to make us feel like we’ll never catch up, no matter how attentive we are.

For the specialty parts business, this phenomenon really started gaining traction about 15 years ago, and we quickly learned that the dog would bite you if you weren’t careful. Those of us who experienced firsthand the Internet boom and bust of the late ’90s have a unique perspective of its effects today. However, it seems that most of the movers and shakers who came crashing into our world at that time with promises of huge sales volume and unprecedented growth were in fact interlopers—outsiders who saw our marketplace as prime for the taking—and many have moved on.

Well, I’m one of those lucky industry folks old enough to have participated in that interesting time while spending my whole career in the specialty automotive business. As a warehouse distributor (WD), it was intoxicating to talk to people who were so darned excited about huge growth potential for our business, brought to reality through the wonders of the Internet. Venture capitalists were throwing money at entrepreneurs large and small, and a new culture club was developing right before our eyes. Being a WD is not typically associated with the leading edge of technology, but rather functioning as the workhorse of the business. This was especially true in the late ’90s when all this excitement was in full swing.

So here we were traveling to California to call on these promising innovators who were going to show us how it was done. And we saw it all. From multistory high-rise office buildings to an overhead garage door in a business park, these techie people were building websites, creating breathtaking sales forecasts and setting the stage for order fulfillment that would make your mouth water.

   

The future is arriving at a faster pace than ever before, and it’s in the form of information-hungry consumers, powerful machine-to-machine interaction and business tools that require rich, complete data to do their job. 

After an initial tour that often included the recreation room, a private cafeteria and other fun stuff that unrestricted venture capital money buys, a meet-and-greet would ensue and we would start talking business. We would show our product lines, talk about shipping times, pour over inventory levels so we could ensure that we wouldn’t run out of everything due to the high demand they were going to create. Fun stuff until the final request came: “I guess all we need now is your product data.”

“Product data?” we said. “We don’t have any product data.”

You could hear a pin drop. In one simple sentence, we threw a whole new expense line into their profit-and-loss statement that in many cases would be their undoing.

“Surely you must have something,” they cried. But, sadly, we didn’t. “Well, the replacement parts guys have some data,” they said. All we could do was hang our heads and introduce them to the reality that the specialty parts market was just a tad behind the replacement parts segment. So, as you can imagine, everyone who was involved in the fray was suddenly very interested in product data and what it would take to “get some of that.”

This wake-up call marked the beginning of our journey to understand, develop, standardize and create the data that would eventually power not only the Internet powerhouses of today but also the efficient systems that power business from manufacturing to distribution to retail. In 1997, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) developed its first make-model tables and vehicle configuration database, and the Product Information Exchange Standard (PIES) followed shortly thereafter. In many cases, those with the wherewithal to attack their data needs head-on at that time continue to enjoy a lead today, and the specialty-parts market has made up some ground.

Today’s marketplace will be much less forgiving, however, and it’s mind-boggling to think about what lies around the corner on the technology front. What we do know is that the importance and selling power of great product data has never been more significant to our future. If the dog-years analogy holds true and you haven’t yet embraced investing in your new “catalog,” then you are ripe to be overtaken.

The future is arriving at a faster pace than ever before, and it’s in the form of information-hungry consumers, powerful machine-to-machine interaction and business tools that require rich, complete data to do their job. Don’t make the mistake of treating your product data in any way other than the high-priority business asset that it is. 

To learn more about how you can take control of your product data and manage it at the lowest possible cost, contact SEMA Data Co-op Director of Membership Jim Graven via e-mail at jimg@semadatacoop.org or by phone at 888-958-6698 x4.

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