How supply meets demand

The real power of e-commerce begins with an accessible and usable catalogue of products

The real power of e-commerce begins with an accessible and usable catalogue of products. Businesses with fragmented, inconsistent online product listings are like doughnuts: They have a substantial exterior with a big hole in the middle.

Thanks to the efforts of Lawrenceville, NJ-based UCCnet, a nonprofit registry of business data for internet-based supply chains, standard formats for product descriptions in 23 industries have been developed, making it possible to organise and share information across companies. And tapping into this industry-standard approach should make it a no-brainer to convey product data electronically throughout a trading network.

FullTilt Solutions in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, has adopted UCCnet standards for its product management software, I-Accel. Product data loaded into I-Accel becomes the central registry. The web-based electronic catalog can be the touchstone for specs and prices and serve as a reference guide to your supplier backbone. In addition, when you push the catalog out to customers via a Java servlet, you give them the chance to view the same catalog. In the process, you eliminate mistakes made with faxes, phone calls and multiple product sheets.

FullTilt's software is designed to accept data in consistent formats while taking into account the changing and evolving nature of product specifications. And while it offers a view-only presentation, it's compatible with XML, meaning connections to transactional applications are possible. At the very least, you'll have a comprehensive and consistent register of products that can be linked to invoicing and accounting procedures.

Joe Pleasant, CIO at Premier in Charlotte, NC, says his nonprofit hospital alliance shares product info using I-Accel across its 1,500 hospitals. With it, he's able to store product items in a master catalog that allows him to easily segregate different categories of products, such as surgical or laboratory supplies, for different members of the health care alliance.

"We're able to connect line items with contracts across our network," said Pleasant. "This makes it possible to do analysis of products, compare pricing and organise our spending." He calls it "master list integrity."

Another advantage of the product management system is synchronization with downstream partners. A Java Database Connectivity-compliant shared repository lets partners have a look at a common product line, which helps to improve order efficiency and invoice accuracy.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart are employing UCCnet formats in product management to improve the accuracy of transactions with suppliers. And we all know what happens to suppliers that don't listen to Wal-Mart: They don't get the business.

Pimm Fox is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara, California. Contact him at pimmfox@pacbell.net.

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