Distributors and wholesalers typically handle many thousands of products, and they need product information management technology to accurately define even larger numbers of product attributes. Otherwise, customers will have trouble finding those products on a seller’s ecommerce site or printed catalog.

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Aung Latt, president, Unilog Content Solutions

For distributors and wholesalers, an ecommerce site is no longer a nice-to-have, but a necessity.

With Amazon muscling into business-to-business sales via its Amazon Business marketplace, distributors and wholesalers need to ensure that they not only have an ecommerce operation in place, but that they have an online storefront that provides a consistent customer experience with detailed product information, ensuring customer engagement—and purchases.

Successful ecommerce sites use intelligent product categorization for easier navigation, which leads to more purchases.

Doing so is no easy task, especially for distributors that offer hundreds of thousands of SKUs. Managing all the product options and content is paramount, which is why product information management has grown in importance. A product information management system, or PIM, is a master catalog of product information that plugs into the other vital tools needed to maintain a smooth digital commerce experience. It house product descriptions, specifications, attributes, images, manuals, how-to videos, care instructions and more in a central repository.

PIM has become such a central component of the online selling experience that, according to a Forrester Research report by senior e-business analyst Bruce Eppinger,

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“Teams that don’t have PIM tools risk palpable competitive disadvantage with content that’s inconsistent, meets only the minimum market requirements, and fails to engage customers. Teams that do use PIM win customers and expand their markets with product content that engages buyers and drives purchase decisions.”

That analysis should hammer home the fact that now is the time for distributors to get on board, educating themselves on what a PIM is and how it ties together many important components of a successful ecommerce operation.

PIM vs. ERP

Distributors have lots of products, and when they make those products available online, there is a lot of data that comes along with them. At a high level, a PIM system lets distributors manage this product data and how the information displays for large, complex catalogs. A PIM can receive product information from multiple vendors or suppliers, and also publish that data to ecommerce websites, print catalogs, and online marketplaces.

Distributors may believe they already have a system for doing this, thanks to the product file in their existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Many distributors and wholesalers use ERPs to house all of their data, including their customer file, ship-to file, vendor file, and product file. But that’s not the same thing as a PIM. ERPs can’t handle the complexity that comes with large catalogs composed of products from multiple vendors. Trying to use an ERP to maintain and publish consistently worded product information to a catalog or ecommerce site requires more man hours than many distributors can afford.

Simplifying complex product catalogs

An ERP also can’t manage data quality like a PIM. If you have three vendors that use different terminology to describe the same attributes, a PIM can help you normalize that data, so that it is consistent when published across your site and ecommerce stores. A PIM can also publish that data back to the ERP itself, so this isn’t a matter of choosing one piece of technology over another, but of deploying both tools at once to make distributors’ lives easier.

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The appeal of the online world is that it offers near infinite space for product pages and information. Unfortunately, customers don’t have infinite time to look through multiple product pages to find what they’re looking for. Successful ecommerce sites use intelligent product categorization for easier navigation, which leads to more purchases.

PIM enables distributors and wholesalers to define the important attributes of their products, which can be a huge aid in both simplifying complex catalogs and eliminating duplicate product pages and hard-to-navigate search results that confuse customers. For example, an HVAC supplier might offer three sizes of water heaters, with three fuel-source options: electric, propane or natural gas. That’s nine product options, and an ERP might list them as nine different products. A PIM can tie these together as one product with multiple options, making it easy to publish to one single page of an ecommerce site.

Helping website tools generate sales

PIM can’t save a struggling ecommerce site all by itself, but it does make other crucial tools function better. PIM plugs directly into content management systems (CMS), site search engines and commerce modules. When you actively edit and manage product data, images, video, brochures and product categorization with the PIM, each of these systems functions more intelligently, helping your customers find and purchase your products quickly.

As competition ramps up in B2B ecommerce, businesses that build their strategy with a PIM at the core will have a much higher rate of success now and in the future. A centralized hub that contains product information makes it that much easier for wholesalers and distributors to maintain a consistent presence across products and channels. Those operating without a PIM in place will struggle to compete against more mature ecommerce operations that provide better data governance, distribution, and accessibility by their partners, suppliers, agencies and online marketplaces.

Aung Latt is president of Unilog Content Solutions, a provider of B2B ecommerce software integrated with PIM technology. He has 20 years of experience in enterprise business software and multimedia technology. Prior to joining Unilog, he was an executive at ERP technology companies DDI System and Epicor Software Corp.

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