(This article was last published on March 30, 2016. It has been updated for accuracy and completeness.)
A difficult part of selling online is managing your product catalog. You could have hundreds or thousands of SKUs to publish across different sales channels like your webstore and marketplaces.
It’s easy then for your product data to become messy and inconsistent. It can be tedious and time-consuming to normalize for all your use cases. This is why many merchants end up settling for subpar product information because it’s simply too much to handle. However, poor product information can lead to other issues like incomplete product listings online.
Here are some common challenges that merchants face with eCommerce product catalog management and what you can do to improve it.
Why Your eCommerce Product Data Matters
Product information is an integral part of providing an optimized online experience. How you manage your product data serves as the foundation of shopping experiences like:
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – How often your products show up in search engine results
- Site navigation – How easy a buyer can navigate through product categories to narrow down their choices
- Site search – Ability for a buyer to search and find products on your site
- Product recommendations – Showing relevant product suggestions to buyers to increase average order values or upsell opportunities
- Confidence to buy – Giving buyers confidence that your product meets their needs
How you manage your product data also affects important back office operations like:
- Go-to-market time – Be able to publish and update product listings online as needed
- Financial/operating reporting – Ensures accurate reports of sales by SKU, costs by SKU, breakdowns by category, and when it’s time to reorder more product
- Integration – Ability to map product data to your ERP to ensure the item is associated with the right inventory counts or customer orders
So, what gets in the way of properly managing your product data?
5 Common Challenges of eCommerce Catalog Management
Here’s 5 common challenges of managing your eCommerce product catalog. As an eCommerce seller, does any of this sound all too familiar?
- Keeping product listings updated online
- Managing product listings across multiple sales channels
- Normalizing supplier or third-party product data
- Expanding your product catalog
- Managing complex product structures like serialized items or kits/assemblies
Keeping Product Listings Updated
Many merchants have to continuously update their SKUs because of constant price changes, newly available products, or other various reasons. Every day, you could spend a significant amount of time fine-tuning your items so that you can list them. This is time taken away from other important tasks such as marketing, operations, and your customers.
Selling Across Multiple Channels
How do you efficiently list the same products across multiple channels like marketplaces or webstores?
Listing products across multiple places is difficult because each channel has its own listing requirements. Amazon’s product categories are different from eBay’s. How you list your product on a marketplace is also different then how you would display them on your branded webstore.
Tailoring listings to each sales channel can take hours, which can slow your go-to market time with products. Product data can easily become messy and still lead to you to making listing mistakes like incomplete information or even listing in the wrong place.
Dealing with Supplier Data
Your suppliers or other third-party vendors often hand over product data that has bare minimum information and could be missing several item attributes. Data can also be in the wrong format using different spellings or data structures.
Since suppliers don’t sell directly to consumers, they don’t need to standardize their product information the same way that you do. These are nuisances that you must fix before you publish online. Having to clean up or normalize this data is a timely step in the process.
Expanding Your Product Catalog
When your product catalog is already poorly organized, it’s hard to add more SKUs when you need to. You either have to go back and clean up your SKUs, or you have to live with your existing poor product data quality. This predicament can lead to some merchants choosing to not add to their existing catalogs. You may not have the resources or time to fix these types of problems. Unfortunately, this issue can discourage you from growing your business.
Dealing with Complex Product Structures
Depending on the types of items you sell, you could have more complex product data structures than others. For example, a merchant selling diamond engagement rings has to deal with a few challenging structures like:
- Serialized items – Each diamond is a unique item
- Kits/assemblies – An engagement ring consists of a unique diamond, stone setting, and ring band style
Even an apparel company deals with matrix/variant products where one item can come in different sizes and colors. These relationships between your products must be organized and well-represented in your data. If it is not, you can have issues publishing data online and with backoffice operations like inventory counts and financial reporting.
How to Improve Your eCommerce Product Catalog Management
Many of the previous challenges we talked about above affect the quality and consistency of your data. It’s hard to maintain quality data when tailoring data for different sales channels, normalizing data from suppliers, or trying to expand your catalog with new products.
The ability to maintain data quality usually comes back to where you centrally manage all your data. Many merchants often turn to Excel or their eCommerce platform to manage their product. However, these options will fall short if you have a large or a complex online product catalog.
When you’re managing large volumes of SKUs in Excel or your eCommerce platform, it can be overwhelming to establish and maintain a consistent standard. Item data can be up having misspellings, omitted attributes, or flat out wrong descriptions.
Excel wasn’t built for eCommerce catalog management. You aren’t going to have the comprehensive tools you need to update your product data. You’ll only have your employees to rely on to make mass updates and changes, which can easily lead to human error.
Your eCommerce platform can perform basic SKU management, but is not purpose-made for catalog management. It won’t have more comprehensive tools that allow you to import, normalize, and publish data to the rest of your sales channels. eCommerce platforms also don’t help tie product data to advanced inventory management or order fulfillment needs.
Choosing Where to Manage Your Product Data
To solve this issue, merchants can turn to different software solutions to better manage their product data to improve go-to market time, enrich product listings, and efficiently tailor listings to multiple sales channels.
1. Managing Product Data in an ERP
Merchants can manage product data in their ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, if you have one. While not all ERPs have the capabilities (especially the legacy ones) to do this, modern ERPs like NetSuite have added product data management capabilities. Your ERP can be a better choice to master your products than Excel or your eCommerce software because they’re then tied closely to financial reporting or any other operational needs. No matter what system they need to be in, your items will start in your ERP. This system turns into your single source of truth for product data.
If using your ERP to store your product information, you can use an integration provider like nChannel to automate your processes like:
- Publishing products from ERP to your eCommerce system or marketplaces
- Pricing updates to product listings online
- Displaying and updating inventory accounts online to avoid overselling
- Associating individual line items to online order fulfillment
2. Investing in a Product Information Management (PIM) System
Merchants can also use Product Information Management (PIM) system as designated software to handle their product data needs. A PIM system centralizes and manages all your product data, no matter where it’s coming from and where it needs to go to. Ideally, it streamlines the process it takes to upload, standardize, and publish your data to your sales channels. You’ll have robust tools that allow you to format data properly and ensure that you always have rich, consistent product information that your buyers are searching for.
PIM systems can vary in price and capabilities. They’re best for merchants who are selling across many (5 or more) marketplaces or have complex needs to clean and normalize data from multiple suppliers. Otherwise, they might not be worth the investment for your business, especially if you already have an ERP or other order management system in place.
Product Information Management is an important topic for today’s online sellers. Check out more resources: