Stacking shelves is simple, right? Actually, it’s not. Without information on the height and width of cartons, their weight or how they stack, it would be impossible.

And that’s just one area where data plays a backstage yet vital role. It underpins each part of the process - from the manufacturer specifying the weight of their product for transportation, to the supermarket website detailing what ingredients are in its vegan curry.

But data quality, or lack of it, has long been a problem. The lack of standardisation means every brand and retailer does things slightly differently, which can adversely affect everyone in the supply chain. For example, if NPD has a different description on the delivery note than it does on the original order, retailers might send it back in error - delaying its launch on the shelves. Similarly, a lack of standards on nutritional information and dietary data can result in a void of product information on a retailer’s site. And who is going to buy a product if they don’t know what’s in it?

The challenges are only getting more complex with the rise of online grocery: even at the same retailer, the online team needs measurements to fill delivery vans and stores want a different set to stack the shelves. Altogether, the data dilemma is estimated to equate to £2bn of missed sales.

Creating a digital DNA for the supply chain

GS1 wants to ensure there is a ‘digital DNA’ for all products that can be used throughout the supply chain - from grower to manufacturer, to retailer and consumer. This will give standardised information on the product including size and nutritional information.

Barcode creator GS1 UK says there is no sign of the situation improving. So last week, it brought together 80% of the UK retail grocery market to form a Retail Grocery Advisory Board with the primary aim of improving data quality. The big four are on board, as are the Co-op, Waitrose, Ocado, Dairy Crest, Müller, Mondelez, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever and P&G. And two grocery heavyweights are co-chairs: Tesco commercial director George Wright and Unilever UK & Ireland customer director Richard Sadler, reflecting retailer and supplier interests.

It sounds impressive, yet GS1 UK has tried before to solve the conundrum of data uniformity and it admits not much has changed. So why will this initiative be any better? What are its goals and how will it achieve them?

The two main aims of the group are to create a ‘digital DNA’ and ‘perfect order’, solutions that GS1 has been working on over the past year. Put simply, the ‘digital DNA’ will be a standardised set of information used across the supply chain. This will cover each aspect of the product including the size, ingredients and allergen information. The ‘perfect order’ is about ensuring standard practice for delivering across the supply chain that sets out the information expected at each stage of the process.

These aren’t revolutionary ideas, but what is different this time is the sheer number of big names on the project. GS1’s CEO Gary Lynch says this shows collaboration is more important than ever. The £2bn number is focusing minds acutely. And digital is dictating the pace: everyone wants to maximise online sales but without the right data in the right form they won’t keep existing customers, never mind entice new ones.

Tim Reay, head of grocery at digital commerce provider Salmon and a 15-year e-commerce veteran from Sainsbury’s, confirms the sense of urgency in the industry. “The major issue is quality, plain and simple.” He says the lack of uniformly accessible information stymies online personalisation, and manufacturers who don’t supply information to retailers in a usable way also “risk missing out with a growing customer segment”.

GS1’s marketing development manager Ian Walters hopes the broad reach of the advisory board will finally crack the problem. “There’s lots of passion when these guys get together.” And the promise of £2bn in extra sales may just be the incentive they need.