When it comes to communication, we have never had it so good. We can sit down at a computer and with a single touch of a button, talk to someone in Venezuela or Outer Mongolia via a webcam But the capacity for worldwide communication raises language problems, as even when a common language is shared, there can still be misunderstandings; as the old song goes, “you say potato….” When it comes to worldwide trading, making sure you’re both talking about the same product is vital ­ the last thing a buyer wants is to place an order for a thousand tins of beans and receive six bottles of sparkling mineral water and half a lemon. Communication is now increasingly sophisticated as retailers are using computers and the internet to trade information with their suppliers ­ mainly through B2B exchanges ­ in the same way that they would once have used the post office and more recently the fax. As a consequence, more efficient tools in the form of electronic product catalogues are rapidly becoming a key factor in the relationship between retailers and suppliers, allowing them to both talk the products’ language. As well as a trading tool, a catalogue can hold all the information on a product, from its brand name right through to its list of ingredients. As Sainsbury’s B2B project manager Stephen Boles says: “The electronic catalogue is a tool for storing supplier product information securely on the internet. This provides a global showroom for suppliers’ products.” This showroom is something that will prove vital for companies in the future and Lee Gill, retail industry director for software producer i2, says cataloguing will become an integral part of operations, both for suppliers and retailers. At the moment, he says, retailers have product data scattered across a variety of different systems and not in any great depth. “This means they not only have the costs of maintaining several systems, but have to source data across all those systems, which takes time. Retailers these days deal across a wide variety of channels and they need fast and rapid access to product data.” So the use of product data catalogues will not only save time, but money as well. Sainsbury’s Boles adds: “This process revolutionises the way data is transferred from supplier to retailer, avoiding duplication of data at the supplier end.” Lorraine Knight, Tesco’s e-commerce business manager, says that data catalogues are becoming a necessity in modern day trading. “Without an electronic catalogue incorporating structured, standardised data, we cannot transact e-business with maximum effectiveness: it is absolutely fundamental to our business.” But the key word here is standardised data. For retailers and suppliers to be able to exchange product information they need to ensure that they are using the same codes. “The catalogues need to be able to compare apples with apples,” says Gill. “Diet Cola for example, is called diet in the UK but light over in Europe, so we need a system that can deal with this.” There is also no point in having hundreds of different catalogues using systems alien to each other. At the moment, the main standard in place is the EAN Global Data Alignment system which defines the data attributes ­ to put it simply, it standardises the fields where information must be entered, but does not go down to the level of specifying the format in which that data must be entered, or to what level of detail. Henri Barthel, general manager of business development for EAN, says: “Our vision is that there are a growing number of catalogues emerging in different countries around the world and they should all be able to contact each other and communicate in a common form. “An international manufacturing company should be able to load data in a catalogue located in France and that data should be accessible to people in another country.” EAN is currently working with the Global Commerce Initiative to further define those standards in a more detailed way. However, there are other organisations out there which offer retailers and suppliers the chance to standardise the data going into their catalogues and Barthel says they effectively add additional value to the EAN system. “Our role is to develop standards to allow catalogues to talk to each other, but that does not bar software companies from developing systems with additional features. It’s like e-mail ­ I might have a sophisticated set up with lots of additional features, while someone else may have a basic package ­ yet they can still read my e­mails.” UDEX is one of the leading companies supplying a software solution for data standardisation. The company is working with both Tesco and Sainsbury and has been adopted by the WorldWide Retail Exchange as its “data standardisation agent”. UDEX ceo John English says his system gives a unique numeric code to every product, which includes every aspect of a product’s description, from weight and ingredients through to packaging details. He says because the system is numerical, there are no difficulties with language. He also points out that the information need only be entered into the system once, which is a huge advantage: “At the moment, every time you key in information there exists the possibility for errors to get into the system and they can cause problems ­ order invoices don’t match, people don’t receive what they want, for example. “Good cataloguing and data standardisation is the lynchpin for successful B2B electronic trading.” English says that his system is leading the way for standardising data, but adds that it will still be compatible with the GCI and EAN standards when they are revealed. He says they will provide a far more detailed level of information than the EAN system. Tesco’s Knight says the UDEX system is currently the only one of its kind to meet its needs and is currently working out well. “Tesco piloted the UDEX system in conjunction with leading suppliers over a period of six months, and it is now very much live. About 1,000 suppliers have registered so far, and we are extending it to cover our entire supplier base in the next few months.” Sainsbury’s Boles says the UDEX system isn’t only of benefit to retailers: “The system cleanses and standardises the product data enabling accurate and reliable data to populate retailers’ systems. This creates efficiency throughout the whole supply chain, from supplier to depot, through to the front-end in store. The increase in accuracy elimates errors, for example depot rejections, invoice mismatches and scanning failure at the till, thus increasing the overall efficiency of the supply chain, whilst reducing costs.” However, UDEX has attracted criticism for describing its system as a global standard. Peter Jordan, Kraft Foods director of the information systems strategic project, says: “UDEX can’t create a global standard as they’re not a standards body like EAN or UCC. However, they could create a defacto industry standard like Microsoft Windows, for example, if they become big enough.” Because the UDEX costs are levied at the supplier, rather than the retailer, in the form of a licence fee, Jordan warns that the company must be aware of the problem smaller suppliers may face: “It’s all got to be cost effective, not only for big companies like Kraft, but for the smaller niche operators. For the guy who sells Easter products for two months a year, the costs to list his product could be too high.” However English says it is something it is taking into account, although he maintains that the benefits and cost savings of having the UDEX system far outweigh any charges. Jordan says ensuring the data contained in catalogues is accurate is an essential starting point: “The internet has been the main driver for cataloguing. People want to do things quicker, and that means you need to get the basic data right. As people move towards more collaborative processes, you need to make sure your data is accurate. It’s back to basics, my new term for B2B!” He adds that one of the main benefits of cataloguing and standardisation is the automation of systems, as it will give business the confidence to be sure their orders will be correct. Other advantages of having a detailed and accurate data catalogue is, according to i2’s Gill, the ability for companies to carry out detailed searches across their entire inventory. He says that if the data is rich enough, allowing organisations to break down products into their individual components, a company would be able to see exactly how much beef it is using across its entire range. “Say for example an E-number preservative is at the centre of a health scare ­ a supermarket can then use the catalogue to search out all products containing that E-number and if the databases are connected to the EPoS system then a block can be placed on those products’ barcodes, stopping them at the till. Other applications are consumer facing ­ a customer can do a search for gluten-free products instore using the database.” While the benefits are not only restricted to the world of e-commerce, achieving a worldwide global system that will be used by everyone won’t be easy. Gill adds: “I wouldn’t pretend for one minute that it’s going to be easy to resolve. “Last time we did something like this was introducing the barcode and people were arguing over how many digits to include. “But that was resolved and this will be too. This is not rocket science, it is just getting people together to agree principles and ensure progress is being made.” n {{FEATURES }}