Businesses are struggling to deliver a unified customer experience across all product touchpoints, but the prioritization of product data management can help deliver better user experiences.

These were the results of a study conducted by Forrester Consulting called, The Future of Commerce Technology. In it, analysts surveyed 375 business decision-makers and directors in Europe and North America on how they’re focusing on product data management to deliver more personalized customer experiences. The majority of respondents — 62% — said they are currently planning to update or entirely replace their commerce platform system or are evaluating plans to do so.

Nearly half (47%) said they want to better personalize their customer-facing web and mobile experiences, and the same percentage said they wanted to update or modernize key legacy custom-developed applications.

Data Challenges

Productsup, the company that sponsored the Forrester Consulting study, has adopted the term “commerce anarchy” to describe the explosion of channels by which consumers search for, discover, and purchase goods and services. The company’s CIO Marcel Hollerbach explains having a system which provides a single place to collect, manage and enrich product information is critical.

“Transactions and customer behavior creates a ton of data that must be made sense of and merged with product catalogs to determine what works and who is engaging with you,” he said. “If they don’t figure out how to manage that, you will be overtaken by companies that have that agility at their core and can hyperscale.”

Hollerbach said the challenge is to integrate a multitude of systems into rapidly changing consumer touchpoints, all the while augmenting that with additional technologies and applications. “Once we have connected product catalogs to Facebook or Google, we have campaign management, and targeted marketing, and you can go beyond that with customer data platforms,” he said. “It’s about understanding what’s happening around your data and the speed with which you can improve the experience further.”

Silos Lead to Anarchy

In addition to the proper technology tools, Hollerbach said companies need to consider a change in management. “The reality is because of the way all these consumer touch points have grown, you have very siloed teams, and one team deals with social, one with marketplace, one with search,” he said. “What we realized is in most cases each of the teams use their own technology. This doesn’t lead to consistency — it’s the exact opposite. It’s anarchy.”

From his perspective, consistence across channels results in better ROI and less operational complexity. “Consistency is the bedrock, but it is in fact a huge issue for a lot of companies. Inconsistency creates returns, and that creates a lot of operations costs,” Hollerbach said. “Proper tooling of product information is all about improving operational costs and contextualizing information for consumers, which improves your return on the ad spend.”

Voice Shopping Adds Complexity

Jordan Jewell, research director for IDC's enterprise applications and digital commerce team, said new ways of shopping, such as chat commerce with devices like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, means businesses also must figure out how to present product information on a voice device, a different challenge to a typical desktop or mobile device. “You need to know how your consumer is buying or browsing on those channels, and the optimal way of advertising will be different on all those channels,” he said.

Learning Opportunities

Cleaning up Your Data

According to Jewell, any changes made to the product should live in the PIM, and when that information is pushed out, it all should be coming from the PIM. “The PIM is all about cleaning up your data in a database,” Jewell said.

Mid-Market Challenges

He explained the challenge for mid-market businesses is the PIMS market has been very focused on the enterprise and companies with millions of SKUs that they are managing. “Therefore, it has been priced for that market and sold to that market, not the mid-market side of it,” Jewell said. “You haven’t seen many solutions supporting that part of the market.”

He warns against the common SMB practices of leaning on spreadsheets for product data management. “That’s a recipe for disaster, because you’re going to make a mistake at some point,” he said. “That’s been a big challenge for companies that don’t buy a proper system. It’s very hard to manage a huge volume of products — you need a team.”

What Does Good Product Management Look Like to Customers

Jewell said he thinks a lot of brands should be asking the question of what better product data management looks like to the consumer — and how to track the positive results. “The key ways to show that your product info management is effective is an increase in sales, obviously, but it’s hard to attribute that to a single thing,” he said. “It could mean the traffic to your product detail page leads to higher conversion — seeing an increase there after making improvements is an easy indicator.”

Indicators of PIM Success

Two other key indicators of success are a drop in returns and a drop in the number of abandoned carts. “I don’t think too many retailers think of the decrease in returns, but it’s a big indicator,” Jewell said. “If you’re accurately showing the customer what the product looks like, they’re less likely to return it, and so if your return rates drop, that has a big impact for your business.”

An improvement in product information on one channel is likely to lead to improved results across all channels, he pointed out. “Everything is connected today, and if I have product information on my branded site, it’s going to improve my sales in store or on Amazon, because consumers are going through multiple channels before clicking the buy button,” he said. “From the consumer’s point of view, If I can find the info I need about the product, regardless of where it is, I’m more likely to buy that product. It’s all interweaved and important.”