Gaining Strategic Advantage Through Your IT Infrastructure
Simon Walker, Director, eCommerce Innovation at Stibo Systems , explains why the seamless customer experience offered by Product Information Management should be considered a pillar of multichannel retailing at scale.
Retailers currently face immense challenges in the marketplace. The poor state of the global economy, coupled with ever increasing competition, has forced those retailers with an online presence to re-consider every aspect of their operations. From marketing to merchandising, areas have been squeezed for greater efficiencies.
At the same time, with trends towards mobile commerce, social or ‘f-commerce’, and the prospect of connected TVs only set to grow, these retailers have to ensure that their IT infrastructure is capable of adapting to the growing number of touchpoints and channels customers use.
Despite being at the heart of any modern business, IT infrastructure is too often viewed as a series of disparate elements rather than as the sum of its parts. Traditional components, including CRM, ERP, order management and merchandising have become standard within many retailers; however businesses need to look a little further if they are going to continue to meet the demands of the evolving modern retail environment. IT infrastructure can and should be seen as one of the driving forces behind growth, but only if it includes all the right elements, and only if they are working successfully together.
As such, Product Information Management (PIM) is perhaps one of the best kept secrets within the industry – but one that should not be overlooked. PIM is about having one single bank of data about all products – attributes, descriptions, images and video content – that underpins all other pillars of the infrastructure. It integrates with CRM, ERP and so on to ensure that whether ecommerce is just one strand of your business, or whether it is your business, the multichannel experience is streamlined and efficient for everyone involved. Without this crucial component, and a comprehensive strategic view of the overall IT infrastructure, data can easily end up siloed, leading to inefficiencies when tackling new challenges such as those thrown up by the growing number of product attributes.
However, whilst integrating these resources has a positive effect on a business, it is often difficult for organisations to commit to what can often form a considerable part of an IT department’s expenditure. What is required is for an IT director to understand the benefits that this approach can bring a business, not only in the immediate future, but in the longer term. Investing in a comprehensive approach to IT infrastructure will serve to future-proof the company, ensuring that it is equipped to handle the next trend in retail, better able to focus on the core areas of their business and truly adapt to ‘the era of agile commerce’. This will result in an ROI far greater than any short term measure or thinking that limits IT infrastructure to the bare essentials. This long term view sees IT infrastructure as an enabler for online retailers, a resource that will not only allow for growth but actually help drive it.
THE ARGUMENT FOR AN INTEGRATED IT INFRASTRUCTURE
The challenge for an IT director within an ecommerce organization then is in persuading senior executives of the business benefits of this comprehensive approach to IT infrastructure. This may be a difficult conversation to have but these elements have too many potential benefits to be overlooked if the IT infrastructure is to be seen as acting as an enabler.
Information has always been valued by business, and is set to play a prominent role in strategic decision making over the coming years. Seamlessly consolidating and mastering a retailer’s data will be vital to business agility and success in today’s data-driven world and in meeting the trends of tomorrow. To take as an example again, without PIM in place, a retailer can often be restricted in the initiatives that it can undertake. For example, setting up a tablet app will be a far more difficult process if the required product information is not consolidated and consistent. However, rather than having a set of data for various different touchpoints, as has traditionally been the case, by employing PIM, retailers only have to master the data just once, effectively allowing them to “manage once and use many”.
Beyond the operational efficiencies that a solution like PIM can bring to a business, the clearest benefit is that it provides for a better customer experience. Whilst customers are increasingly shopping through their tablets, mobiles and PCs, they continue to demand the same sort of service they would expect of a bricks and mortar retailer. As such they require the information held on each product to be thorough and detailed.
In a survey we carried out in April 2012, 67% of consumers stated that detailed product information was very important when purchasing high value goods. A customer will clearly be put off making a purchase if they cannot access all the information they require on details such as sizing.
In addition, by integrating PIM within its broader IT infrastructure, an online retailer is able to quicken the time it takes to bring new products to market to meet customer demand. As PIM consolidates and standardises information that a business receives from suppliers, the time taken integrating a new product within the business can be dramatically reduced. Suddenly, with the main beneficiary of IT infrastructure being the customer, the argument behind a comprehensive approach to IT is often better received.
TAKING THE LONGER VIEW
So, while PIM is just one of the elements that a comprehensive approach to infrastructure requires, it demonstrates the wider ability of IT infrastructure to help future-proof a business. When you consider the emergence of the ‘competitive information strategy war’ that Gartner highlighted in its ‘Strategic Information Management for Competitive Advantage ‘whitepaper, PIM plays a vital role in ensuring consistent long term growth.
To enable this long term growth, and to gain a real competitive advantage from the information a business holds, a consistent and centralised approach to data management is required. Those retailers that have already implemented a PIM system into their IT infrastructure will find that they are better equipped to take a strategic view of all of the information it holds.
However, in order to move to this more strategic way of managing information, it is necessary to ensure that resources such as PIM are already deployed alongside CRM, ERP, order management and merchandising solutions. Investing in a comprehensive and multifaceted IT infrastructure will allow the development of a more agile ecommerce business that can meet changing consumer demand. Those retailers that recognise this and invest in a comprehensive IT infrastructure stand to benefit in the long term. Without such investment now the business will be slow to respond to future trends and could stand to lose out to more agile competitors.