Businesses deal with a lot of data. This statement might bring to mind sales charts, website traffic reports, and other types of information, and these are only a few of the data types that business management involves. Those kinds of data are collected by a business to help it create its strategies and identify areas for improvement, but we're going to discuss a different type of data that a business creates and maintains itself. Specifically, product data and its management.
Product data includes all types of information about every product a business sells, including manufacturing materials, technical specifications, size and weight, photographs and schematics, and much more. This is the data your business presents to potential customers to help them decide to purchase your products, making it crucial to your bottom line. Product information is displayed in several places, including your eCommerce website, your products' packaging, your marketing materials, and more.
The problem arises when product information needs to be changed or added, especially when there's a large amount of information due to the size of your inventory. Ensuring that correct new or updated product information reaches all your channels in a timely manner can present significant challenges.
Data Management Challenges Faced by eCommerce Businesses
As inventories grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for existing infrastructures to catalog all the data for each product. It may not be too difficult to add new product information in a single place, such as on your eCommerce website, but that's only one location in which this data is used. New or updated product information needs to go to every channel, which can include multiple eCommerce stores, outside sales channels such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google Shopping, and internal channels such as your marketing department and package designers.
If your business doesn't have an efficient way to send accurate product data to every channel, you can find yourself wasting time, money, and manpower — and worse, allowing inaccurate information to persist while the painstaking data management tasks slowly chug along.
Whether the inaccuracies are caused by outdated information or by the potential for human error that naturally comes with manual data entry, if you allow inaccurate product information to remain, your business will suffer. Disappointed customers will feel they've purchased the wrong products and come to the conclusion that they can't trust you. The time and resources you'll need to put into customer service and returned purchase handling can be overwhelming and expensive, and still don't cover the damage to your brand's reputation. Other costs and waste can arise too, such as inaccurate packaging being produced because that part of your team isn't yet aware of the changes.
Growing Enterprises Need Stronger Information Management
The simple fact is that many businesses forget to implement a plan for growth and change within their own inventories, or underestimate the need for such a system. It's easy to understand how this mistake can be made, especially for businesses that had much smaller beginnings in which it was once actually possible to do everything manually.
While it can be exhilarating to see your business grow, that growth also calls for more powerful infrastructure and more efficient ways of managing an ever-increasing workload. Larger businesses need to shore up their systems at a rate that both supports their growth and respects their budget. An Enterprise-grade SaaS eCommerce platform is often the first step, but may not include the full range of necessary features for omnichannel product information management.
Your business's infrastructure needs the proper tools to allow you to quickly add any number of new products, and update the data for any existing products as needed, across all channels with minimal time, effort, and cost.
How Can Product Information Become Outdated?
If your products have never required an update to their information, you may wonder how product information can become outdated. How and why can product information change?
Sometimes, it's as simple as an oversight or inaccuracy being spotted during the normal course of business. For example, if customers repeatedly ask the same question about a product before buying it, it's clear you've left out some information that should have been included. Similarly, if customers constantly report a product as differing from its description, you're presenting them with inaccurate information which should be updated as soon as possible.
Another scenario is that, while your product information is correct, you need to enhance its SEO or make other changes to help leverage new marketing opportunities. This could require an update of any number of your products.
Of course, you want to get your product information right the first time, but updates can still be required due to events outside your control, such as a change in your supply chain. Manufacturers occasionally change certain aspects of their production, like which materials are used or where they're sourced, the weight or dimensions of certain finished products, or other variables. Price can be a factor too, as if a manufacturer's costs rise, their products become more expensive for your business to purchase and you may need to raise your own prices as a result.
These changes can be caused by anything from government regulation to public perception to natural disasters and everything in between. For example, 80% of vanilla is produced in Madagascar, a country prone to cyclones. It takes 2 – 4 years for vanilla vines to start bearing beans, and the beans need to cure for months before they can be used in vanilla extract production. The price of vanilla, whether it's a bottled extract or an ingredient in your favorite cake mix, has skyrocketed more than once because extreme weather in Madagascar destroyed crops which would take years to recover.
Vanilla prices increased so much that companies using vanilla in their own products had to raise their own prices to stay profitable, or switch to artificial vanilla flavoring. Both approaches meant their product information had to be changed as quickly as possible. Making things even more uncertain, vanilla is not native to Madagascar, so the flowers need to be pollinated by hand during an extremely short window of time — a single day. Even if the weather cooperates, anything that prevents the vanilla farmers from following their tight schedule can affect the harvest and cause additional fluctuations in price, which will cause all the dependent businesses to need to update their product information again.
The point here is that anything can happen. While your business may not be dependent on the weather in Madagascar, this serves as a good example of how a random event can have far-reaching consequences for your product sourcing and manufacturing. Your business needs to be prepared for all possibilities with a fast, efficient way to update product information.
How Difficult is it to Keep Product Information Up to Date?
Entering data for a single product on a single channel is usually easy, so if your business is still on the smaller side, it can take some stretching of the imagination to picture just how much work is involved in updating thousands of products across multiple platforms and keeping them all consistent. Worse, if it takes too long, additional updates may come to light during the process and cause even more confusion.
Some business owners don't consider the fact that product information can change, so they may not even have an easy way to update their own website. Fortunately, dedicated eCommerce software with product management features has made it easy to avoid this issue.
Product information needs to be accurate, consistently formatted, and effective at communicating your products' value to consumers. You'll want detailed descriptions, high-quality photos, and more. If you already have great reviews on a product on your website, you'll want its star rating included too when you list that product for sale on Facebook or Google Shopping. This means product information is much more complex than just prices and specifications, making it even more challenging to manage efficiently.
As you grow, the workload increases exponentially. The larger your business, the more data you'll need to wrangle — and as you scale up, the tools that once worked great for you will no longer be sufficient. Data management is just like any other task in the sense that larger jobs require more powerful tools. You could easily dig a small hole with a garden trowel, but what about a foundation for a new building? Of course not; you'd hire contractors with an excavator. Can you keep track of 50 products on a spreadsheet, even with all the types of information we just covered? Probably, but how about 50,000? No, it's time to bring in the heavy machinery — and in this case, the heavy machinery is the PIM (Product Information Management) system.
What is PIM?
Product Information Management systems provide a centralized location for product information that all your other channels and departments can source from. Well-implemented PIM provides a massive advantage to a business by standardizing your product data and streamlining the process of pushing it out to all channels. PIM software is available from many different providers and can often integrate with certain parts of your other eCommerce software such as your inventory tracking and control systems. Some eCommerce platforms have PIM features built in right out of the box.
A robust PIM system will significantly reduce the workload involved in adding, updating, and distributing product information across multiple channels. Some PIM systems include a degree of automation that also allows you to push updates to your other channels right as they occur, or otherwise on a regular schedule.
The purpose of PIM is to mitigate the challenges of product data consistency and management throughout your entire business, guarantee equal distribution of the highest-quality product data as easily as possible, and provide you with the tools and opportunity to improve your product information across the board.
The Advantages of PIM
You could summarize the basic advantage of PIM by saying that it vastly improves the way your business handles product data, but what exactly does this mean? Let's take a closer look at the details of how a good PIM system can benefit your business in several ways:
- PIM enables product data collection in a single, central location. This means your business only needs to maintain one database rather than manually updating information in several places. This saves massive amounts of time and prevents mistakes from propagating.
- Additionally, the centralized nature of PIM means all your channels and departments will receive the same information, ensuring consistency across your entire business. This means increased efficiency and speed.
- PIM systems can allow you to import product data directly from your suppliers, ensuring accuracy and saving even more time. Of course, you should make an effort to write a unique product description and re-word bullet points where possible, as this prevents your website from suffering a possible SEO penalty for duplicate content, but it's still extremely helpful to pull technical specifications and other details straight from the supplier's database.
- PIM's powerful organizational abilities help you categorize products and push their information where it needs to go, whether you add a single product at a time or thousands. This means your products can reach the market faster and start turning a profit sooner.
- Omnichannel sales become almost second-nature with PIM, as product data can be exported to other eCommerce websites and marketplaces so easily (and updated just as quickly). Your business can sell products on your Facebook Business Page, create listings for Google Shopping, and even list products on eBay with a few mouse clicks. Options also exist for synchronizing information across multiple websites belonging to your business, and much more.
- Since PIM makes it easier to add, update, and distribute product information, your business can afford to put more time and effort into that product information with the confidence that it will reach the proper channels. This is a fantastic opportunity to enrich your product information with better descriptions and media that can add emotional appeal and make customers connect more quickly with your brand.
PIM allows for rapid updates of product information, preventing outdated information from persisting on your online catalog or other sales channels, and therefore helps prevent negative customer experiences relating to buying "the wrong product" or feeling misled by your business.
- By providing a fast method for keeping your product information updated, PIM also helps counteract the unpredictable nature of certain markets.
As you can see, PIM capabilities provide an overall improvement to several aspects of your business, all of which translate to increased efficiency and sales.
Are There Disadvantages of PIM?
While PIM offers undeniable advantages, there are a few disadvantages of the same type you can expect when attempting to adopt any type of software or technology within your business. However, it's worth noting that most of the disadvantages can be mitigated by choosing a PIM system that works properly with your eCommerce software.
- Some product types require more types of data than others; for example, you may need certain technical specifications, part numbers, or other information. Sometimes PIM software is hard to customize in order to add the extra fields you need to record this data.
- Some PIM software comes with a significant learning curve that can make it difficult to begin using it in your business.
- It's extremely helpful to be able to integrate your PIM with your ERP (enterprise resource planning) system in order to include inventory counts and other variables. For example, if you export products to another sales channel like a Facebook shop, you want each product's inventory count and star rating to be pulled from your online store to be displayed on Facebook. Unfortunately some PIM systems can't integrate with your ERP and won't be able to access this kind of information.
- Some PIM software suffers from poor integrations overall, meaning it's difficult to use it with your existing infrastructure.
- Many PIM solutions are designed only for large enterprises, preventing smaller businesses from accessing their benefits due to large price tags, custom development requirements, or other stumbling blocks.
As we mentioned earlier, you can avoid these problems by choosing your PIM carefully.
How to Implement PIM in Your Business
Now that you understand PIM and how it can help your business (as well as understanding the disadvantages to watch out for), you're likely considering a PIM solution to help streamline your own operations.
Let's go over a few more details that will help you decide whether it's time for PIM and how to take the next steps.
When Is It Time to Implement PIM?
A bit earlier, we compared PIM to heavy machinery in the context that you need to bring it in for larger jobs that are too difficult or time-consuming to do manually. However, that doesn't mean you should wait until you're already struggling. Some businesses — even small ones — can benefit from implementing PIM right away.
When evaluating whether it's time to start using PIM, ask yourself the following questions about your business:
- How many products do you currently sell?
- How complex is your product information? This includes the information itself (such as technical details) as well as your category structure.
- Are you planning to add any new products?
- Does your product information need improvement? E.g. can it be enriched by better media, more details, and higher-quality descriptions to help customers picture themselves using your products?
- Are you facing time constraints that prevent you from giving your product information the attention it needs?
- Do you sell across multiple channels (such as Facebook, eBay, Google Shopping, etc.) or do you plan to expand to multichannel sales in the near future?
- Are you currently seeing business growth that will require you to scale up before long?
Of course, cost is also a factor you should keep in mind while searching for a PIM eCommerce solution, but this doesn't mean you should assume that PIM is currently out of your reach. As eCommerce grows and multichannel selling becomes more complex, the need for PIM for any business has become much more widespread and understood. Affordable PIM is available from several providers and can even be built into the eCommerce software you use for your website.
How and Where to Find a PIM Solution
The first steps you take to choose a PIM system will probably depend on the size of your business and the scale at which you're used to working. If you run a small startup looking to grow, you might head to Google to start researching. If you're part of a large corporation in need of better data management, your first stop might instead be your company's development team or a consultant.
Either way, great PIM software is already available for your business, so make sure you look into those options before deciding to build a custom solution. While it's true that some businesses have needs and situations that are truly unique, the vast majority of businesses can get everything they need from existing software.
There are additional problems inherent in building custom software for your business, whether it's a PIM system or your own eCommerce platform. At the outset of the project, most businesses are unaware of its true scope and the extreme amounts of labor that will be required to keep everything updated and running indefinitely. What begins as a cost-saving measure usually results in unexpected problems that cause expenses to balloon over time.
When closely examined, most companies' motivations for wanting to develop custom software boil down to pride of ownership and a desire for independence — both of which are entirely understandable — as well as a false assumption that no existing solution could fully meet the business's needs. This often causes businesses to overlook viable software and services and waste both time and resources on reinventing the wheel.
SaaS (software as a service) is the model that saves the most time, labor, and money when it comes to software. With SaaS, the software provider handles all the maintenance, web hosting, security, software development and updates, and other technical components involved. The user simply logs into the service with no need to install or maintain the software on their own.
SaaS brings unprecedented convenience and ease of use into eCommerce — a single proprietor can run a small business from a laptop — but its sheer accessibility sometimes causes larger businesses to dismiss SaaS solutions out of the assumption that SaaS is only for beginners and not suitable for enterprise eCommerce. This is simply not true. SaaS is a valid option for businesses of all sizes, and the right PIM eCommerce platform is already available to you.
The Fastest, Easiest Path to PIM: Use an eCommerce Platform with Built-In PIM Features
All too often, business only start looking for a PIM solution when their workload has grown to the point that inaccurate product information is everywhere and sales are already suffering. This is the wrong approach for obvious reasons.
Implementing PIM in a business can also result in expensive downtime as systems are upgraded and workflows are adjusted for the new software. Sometimes this is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be for every business. The ease of implementing PIM (and transitioning your current setup to work with it) varies depending on your eCommerce software.
The best option for every business is to have PIM capabilities from the beginning so you can avoid both of the above scenarios. This means you need eCommerce software with PIM functionality included in the platform, but does such a solution exist?
Yes — Shift4Shop.
How Shift4Shop Works as a PIM eCommerce Solution
Shift4Shop is a complete SaaS eCommerce platform built for maximum functionality and efficiency for any size business. You can use Shift4Shop to build a complete website, centralize sales and inventory management across other platforms, or add an online store to an existing website. Shift4Shop's built-in PIM features are perfect for omnichannel sales and ensuring consistency of your product information everywhere.
Let's dissect the product and inventory features in Shift4Shop and how they work:
- Rich, customizable product pages give you plenty of room for specifications, detailed descriptions, media, and more. Every product page can include the enriched product information customers look for, plus you'll have unlimited disk space to include all the high-quality images and video you need.
- You can add products to your Shift4Shop store manually or upload them in bulk via CSV file, a necessity for businesses with huge catalogs.
- Unlimited product options and variants ensure you can present every product option you sell, without needing to incorrectly split a single product into multiple listings as you often need to do on other platforms. With Advanced Options, you can also assign different weights, prices, or other data to different product variants.
- Unlimited, powerful categorization ensures you can organize your products however you see fit, to help your customers find what they're looking for and improve your SEO at the same time.
- Built-in multichannel integrations allow you to export full product listings to channels including eBay, Facebook, Google, and more. This means your complete, accurate product data is available at all times for eBay and Amazon listings, your Facebook Business Page, Facebook advertising, Instagram Shoppable Posts, Google Shopping, Google ads, and more.
- The exported product data includes up-to-date information like current pricing (including any active discounts), star ratings accrued from your customer reviews, and in-stock status derived from your inventory count.
- Import functionality is also included so you can pull all your existing products from eBay or other platforms like Houzz.
- Your inventory and sales are synchronized across all platforms to ensure you always have an accurate count of every product you sell, no matter where the item was sold
- All your sales can be handled right from your Shift4Shop dashboard to centralize your workflow.
- Integrate with your suppliers to import any product information they offer, including solutions for dropshipping and print-on-demand services.
Shift4Shop's robust product management system is built for multichannel sales and works as a PIM system right out of the box. Several integrations are also available in the form of third-party apps to help connect your Shift4Shop store to additional services and further expand your business's eCommerce capabilities.
With Shift4Shop, a business of any size can build a full-featured eCommerce website and sell across multiple channels from the beginning.
While it's possible for any business to integrate with an outside PIM system, it's best to find one that works perfectly with your ERP so it can also access data such as inventory counts and sales reporting. This means there's no better solution than to run your business on an eCommerce platform that has its PIM system built in.
Built-in PIM also means that even the newest business will have these features available as soon as they're necessary and won't have to spend resources to implement PIM later on. In fact, utilizing PIM from the outset means your business will never suffer the disruptions of trying to change and update your product information management practices mid-stream, like trying to build a boat while you're already sailing down the river. Instead, you'll have everything you need for unlimited scalability right from the start.
Shift4Shop is the ideal eCommerce solution for a business of any size to sell online across multiple channels and catalog rich product information within a centralized database, while also tracking inventory and handling sales from a centralized dashboard. This means huge savings in time and workload, allowing you to better distribute your resources and focus on growing your business — not on struggling with incompatible software or tediously entering redundant data by hand.
As your business grows, Shift4Shop grows with you, saving you the trouble of migrating to a different platform — unlike other solutions that are only suitable for businesses in certain stages. Plus, enterprise-grade features like PIM are a core part of the Shift4Shop software, so the very best tools are available to your business from day one. This will give you a massive advantage over your competitors.
The business world is uncertain, and eCommerce competition is always fierce, but Shift4Shop has everything you need not just to survive, but to excel.