Providing accurate pricing information, sizing, product images, dimensions, availability and other product attributes is essential for boosting online sales. Here are some pitfalls to avoid.

Angela Culver, chief marketing officer, Akeneo

Angela Culver, chief marketing officer, Akeneo

Accurate product data is the lifeblood of e-commerce. When a customer is contemplating online purchases, the right product information becomes the virtual equivalent of picking up an item and holding it in one’s hands.

Pricing information, sizing, product images, dimensions—all of these can become key drivers of decisions to purchase. On days like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, providing accurate and up-to-date product information to online shoppers can make the difference between mega-level sales and happy customers or jammed-up customer service phone lines and a tarnished brand post-holiday. Surprisingly, although consumers contemplating purchases overwhelmingly depend on product information they find on retailers’ websites, studies have shown that this information is 100 percent accurate only about a third of the time. In other words, one of the primary drivers of online purchases is often inadequate or flat-out wrong.

What Can Companies Do About This?

The first step is acknowledging the importance of maintaining accurate and comprehensive product data. Whether you are a manufacturer, distributor, or retailer, today’s complex multichannel sales environments demand a level of product sophistication and detail far beyond the capabilities of 20th-century tools like Excel spreadsheets and pivot tables. Managing this type of data properly requires a comprehensive information management system—one that encompasses all kinds of product attributes, from pricing and warranty details to images, video, dimension information, and information found in instruction manuals.

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U.S. brands that sell into European countries need to be aware of both large and small cultural differences.

Failing to have an effective product data management system doesn’t only create problems with customers, it also creates supply chain and warehousing issues and can ultimately damage a brand’s image.

This problem looms even larger during the holiday shopping season, when customers require precise product information to help them find the right gifts. Who wants to send a Christmas present that won’t fit through the doorway or isn’t approved for use by young children? Some of the most common pitfalls of poor product data management are outlined below, in the hope of helping e-commerce providers learn from them this holiday season and set the right priorities for 2018 and beyond.

Manage Product Info in a Multichannel World

Technical and usage data includes everything from color, size, weight, and dimension to price, electronic specs, and warranty and shipping details. These might seem like basic product details, but for modern brands with multichannel distribution, getting these details right can be complex and daunting. In California, for instance, the state’s Department of Weights and Measures imposes strict penalties on mismatches between shelf tags and point-of-sale pricing.

Erroneous product information can affect a business’s entire supply chain. Imagine a clothing brand that has mistakenly labeled the inventory SKUs for trench coat products in its brick-and-mortar and online warehouses. The company’s e-commerce site lists the trench coat as “available,” but the online warehouse is actually out of stock. The customer service team has to send apologetic emails and issue refunds to customers who ordered the product. This complicates warehouse and fulfilment management, angers customers, and can lead to revenue loss.

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Avoid International and Cultural Pitfalls

Merchants that use online commerce to extend their operations internationally face additional product data challenges. Geography, culture and language barriers require translation, localized marketing, and pricing and measurement conversion, each of which has to be done correctly for each market. U.S. brands, for example, that sell into European countries need to be aware of both large and small cultural differences.

While Western Europeans associate drinking coffee with relaxation and downtime, Americans tend to view coffee as a way of staying alert and pumping up their adrenaline. When a coffee brand is marketing to the French, wording needs to focus around lifestyle and enjoyment of the experience; in the U.S., marketers might emphasize efficiency and effectiveness. Neglecting those significant cultural differences can be trivial in some instances, but in others they can be devastating: One Dubai-based e-commerce company that sold swimwear found itself scrambling when a two-piece bathing suit intended for the U.S. market was unintentionally promoted to a Saudi audience. For obvious reasons this did not play out well in a county where women’s public wardrobes are typically limited to Burqas and full-body beach attires.

Build an Emotional Connection with Customers

In addition to helping businesses improve operations, effective product data management is crucial for cultivating a superior customer experience. Many modern retailers go a step beyond basic product attributes by providing contextual and lifestyle content such as “How To’s” and user guides; they also incorporate user-generated content, including ratings and reviews, to help consumers make informed decisions. Some even include customer-generated photos and videos on social media to showcase how real people, in real life, are using their products.

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This year, in preparation for Black Friday, Nike offered an option for purchasers of the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 34 running shoe to add customized “Nike Run” emojis—inspired by their personal experiences—to the tongue of their sneakers. The goal of this campaign, like other types of product extension, is to help build a brand’s personal connection to customers. By supplementing routine product data with powerful personal content, rich product information can help brands better connect with customers.

Turn Product Information Into a Brand Asset

In the past, businesses have organized and stored product information in spreadsheets and large legacy systems, which in a multichannel environment can be error-prone and inefficient. A more effective approach is to select a purpose-built software platform that enables master data management. These systems, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated and useful, can consolidate data into consistent formats that can be shared seamlessly between partners and suppliers.

A robust data platform allows managers to assemble, enrich, and distribute their product information, as well as to monitor exceptions, edit data fields, and add content. By creating a “golden record” of a product’s data, these platforms help companies turn product information into what it should be: an important brand asset.

Ultimately, product data is the building block that brands use to create emotional connections to customers—and getting it right, consistently, requires a platform tailored for that purpose.

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Akeneo is a France-based product information management company with U.S. headquarters in Boston.

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