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Is your product content making the grade?

Friday, December 23, 2016 - 08:00
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The question of whether a supplier supported the automotive data standards used to be answered with “yes” or “no.” But today, the answer includes Silver, Gold or Platinum, or some other designation of the completeness, timeliness and consistency of the content.

Retailers and distributors have come to assume that their brands are able to exchange catalog and product information in the industry standard format. Now, the point of differentiation is in quality and completeness of the content.

I recently surveyed the websites of those companies that sell software or services related to content management in the automotive aftermarket industry. Nearly every one proudly proclaims that their technology conforms to the industry standards and they are ACES and PIES compliant. Of course, these pronounceable acronyms refer to the Aftermarket Catalog Exchange Standard (ACES) and the Product Information Exchange Standard (PIES). The key word in each name is “exchange” because the objective of these standards is to reduce the time, effort and opportunity for data degradation in the exchange process between data partners.

It’s important to point out that as voluntary industry standards, ACES and PIES yield predictable results in the data exchange process. That is different from standardizing the data content or the application of that content.

An example I like to use to illustrate this is a credit card. The dimensions and thickness, the location of the magnetic strip and the specifications of the embedded security chip are all governed by standards defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO). This is the reason your ATM card issued in the United States works in ATM machines around the world. But, the issuing bank, the credit limit, rebates and other loyalty features, even the design on the face of the card can all be different. These are the points of differentiation. The ISO standard is the reason they all work in an interconnected world.

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And so it is with automotive product information and application catalog. The standards do not predefine the vehicle coverage that a replacement part’s brand has. One may choose to cover Fords only and another may offer all makes and all models. They do not guarantee the same number of marketing bullets or product attributes across multiple websites or brands.

The standards do, however, ensure that vehicles are referred to in a way that can be understood by many partners that trade data. And, the standards provide a measure of consistency and predictability in the text and other copy used to describe products. In short, the standards help the machines understand and process information that humans instinctively comprehend.

That’s why I recoil when I read that “our catalog conforms to the Auto Care ACES and PIES standards.” No it doesn’t – or at least I hope it doesn’t. The presentation of the content on a page or in an application should account for the way users want to view the information – not blindly repeat the way the content was exchanged. You can spot a website that “conforms to the standard” because they include meaningless or overlapping catalog comments and fitment notes. Their product classifications are entirely too granular to be useful. And, they ask vehicle configuration questions that do not affect the selection of the product. That’s what ACES and PIES deliver when left on autopilot.

What makes automotive content unique is that after data exchange, there are countless ways to enhance the presentation of the content and make it more valuable to the user. The best catalogs and websites invest effort in the presentation of the content. They customize the categorization tree and support multiple methods of getting to a meaningful result, including VIN search, interchange and key word search. The content behind the scenes was the result of a standardized exchange. But, the user experience can vary and offer differentiation.

Now, back to this grading business. I recently had an opportunity to spend time with the SEMA Data Co-op (SDC) and learn more about their data practices. SDC is the data pool backed by the trade association, SEMA.

SDC’s primary purpose is to offer a cost-effective resource to their members to upload, normalize, standardize and distribute their catalog and product content. The SDC recognizes that every brand cannot supply product information to the same level of detail. After all, the PIES standard supports hundreds of data elements about a single item. So, SDC has designated several levels of completeness in their data scorecard. Bronze is the minimum viable amount of data that is required before the SDC will let content out the door. Description, bar code characters, product classification code and brand identification are among the 23 fields defined as the minimum.

 As suppliers invest more resources in their data management, they advance through Silver and Gold, and eventually reach Platinum status for data richness and completeness with 53 or more elements of information. Retailers and distributors value suppliers that have reached Platinum on their scorecard because theirs is the more complete and descriptive content available. In short, Platinum content will sell more parts and keep them sold.

The SDC scorecard is just one example of how the industry is raising the awareness of the data standards and the value of reaching for the most complete version of product data achievable. It’s been true since your first report card. The better the grade, the better the outcome.

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