Building the one-stop content shop

How can retailers manage data flow across multiple channels which embraces not just product and price details but also images,...

How can retailers manage data flow across multiple channels which embraces not just product and price details but also images, video and voice?

Ask Forrester, Jupiter, Giga and most of the management consultants - the latter no doubt sensing long projects and big fees - about content management, and they will tell you it's big and it's important.

It's about how companies trading across physical and electronic channels, fixed and mobile, manage and distribute content. In the case of retailers, it's about how they can bring together price, product size, colour and style, images, video and voice in order to create the master catalogue.

They can then construct the ideal interface to customers through the store, mail-order catalogue, the Internet and Wap phones, ensuring consistency, speed of delivery and accuracy of data delivered.

Data sources need to be integrated and centralised. Systems managers have no problems seeing why data should be centralised for structuring and distribution through any channel, but what are the real business benefits? Kieran Kilmartin, Mediasurface product marketing manager, says bluntly, "Customers interact with content. If you can't manage content efficiently, you won't be able to maintain customer relationships."

Steve McClure, a research vice-president at IDC, says, "Companies must understand that content management, irrespective of language, location or digital channel, is an essential requirement for e-business success. The development and delivery of content, within and outside of firewalls, requires solutions that implement quickly and allow users to immediatelymanagelarge amounts of content and changes."

Web content management has become firmly established as the key to e-business success. In this year alone, respondents in a recent Forrester survey plan to spend anaverageof$40mon e-commerce applications, 72% above last year's amount of $24m. And industry analysts agree that content management is the cornerstone of robust, high-end e-commerce applications.

Despite being mercifully free of hype for a new IT buzz phrase, content management is often misunderstood. Many will say that it is about how your Web site looks. That is reasonable, given that most of the handful of suppliers in this market are only concerned about the Web, such as Broadvision, Vignette, Interwoven and Media Surface. However, even they recognise that the Internet has far from killed off traditional direct channels such as the humble mail-order catalogue, which is in fact thriving.

What departments require is a structuring tool that will create a media-neutral platform which stores the product and service information astext, images, audio or video, independent of media or format. This then allows information to be published in any format (Internet, catalogues, CDs, stores, call centres and now, Wap and interactive TV) from the same central database, ensuring synchronised pricing and product details across all channels.

Such a tool will enable retailers to extract data from existing systems and place them in a central hub for easy publishing and distribution. The traditional database companies such as Oracle are getting into the content management business, and Oracle has added Oracle Portal and Oracle Internet file system - which sit on the main database - as ways to pre-order data for new channels, accessible by ordinary users.

Inevitably the main problem in managing content is scalability. CarolynPatterson, Oracle's Internet platform marketing manager, says, "Plenty of companies start small and then can't scale or don't realise quite how much data the Internet will generate."

Retailers, however, tend to be some way from embracing this vision. Almost all of them manage according to the needs of each channel rather than having an overall strategy. Bricks-and-mortar retailers tend to start from a position of having stores and then wanting to move into other channels.

What most have done is to start from scratch, discovering that the information they need to create catalogues or Web sites resides in many different places, is often not translatable into new media, and is costly to both extract and publish.

Andrew Pearson, regional manager for Vignette, adds, "Many retailers have outsourced their Web sites so they have no control over content. It's a messy situation and many firms are simply not taking the problem seriously."

Pearson's comments are borne out by the fact that the main content management providers have hardly any retailers, bricks-and-mortar or dotcom, on their books. Pearson says this is due partly to the complexity of managing content for retailers. "There are plenty of publishers who have taken this route, but they are going to have to think aboutre-engineeringfor retailers."

Given the scepticism that many retailers have about non-store channels, this is unlikely to happen tomorrow. Paul Ellis, business development manager at content management solutions provider, Zygon, admits it is a problem. "We are talking about million-dollar sales here and a need for bigger servers and masses more storage, even before the issue of consolidating data has been addressed."

A number of companies provide a different solution for each requirement, denying retailers the flexibility they need to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. They will also be prevented from applying a consistent strategy across all their channels to market.

Ellis says, "Retailers should look to see where their information sources are, then where their customers are, and build a path between them." Partial solutions abound and yet it is also becoming clear that no single company can do everything.

Ellis' advice to retailers is to choose suppliers who are prepared to partner. "Integration is needed between many of the players in this space. SAP and IBM emphasise integration but do not provide best-of-breed solutions."

What he does not say, as analysts who prefer to remain nameless assert, is that the ERP providers are now starting to talk about content management but have no solutions.

Zygon likes to team up with companies already established in core retail systems and has partnered with retail software company NSB, which provides merchandising, warehouse and EPOS systems.

"Dataflows between those core retailer systems are essential to make transactions and fulfilment through any channel work," says Ellis.

Vignette, which is one of the biggest players, puts its growth down topartnerships withAndersen Consulting, PWC and CSC as well as IT suppliers IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Sun.

This is all fine in theory, but IT managers looking for evidence that this works are waiting for projects to be rolled out. Unable yet to discuss work for customers, content management companies look to the future. Zygon, whichis waitingfor storecatalogue retailer Argos to go public with its solution, PPM, says that interoperability in the supply chain, with third parties, is the next step.

"This has not been addressed yet but when it comes to supply chains, data will have to flow outside companies and there will be issues of systems compatibility, standards, process protocols and so on," explains Ellis.

Did he say standards? Inevitably in the standards world there are already two approaches battling for domination - Rosettanet and Microsoft's Biztalk. Zygon is firmly behind Rosettanet as is HP, Intel and Oracle. Ellis says, "Biztalk is about technical standards for e-business while Rosettanet specifies actual business processes. The technical side is taken care of by specifications using XML, leaving retailers to worry about processes."

Ultimately, content management is only the start. As Pearson says, "Retailers will say that the goal is customer service and retention and yet few are using content to personalise Web sites."

This is the next big challenge. How to reconcile content about products and services with data about customers to create the "my Web sites" so many retailers talk about. For retailers with lots of transaction data piling up in data warehouses but little actual knowledge of their customers, this could be a challenge they are not yet ready to meet.

Research company Giga hints at the technical goals. "Clients should now be linking existing content management applications with personalisation/analysis engines, and integrating both with their e-commerce platforms."

This process has only just begun and there are many barriers in the way. One is the power struggle for access to and control of the customer. The mobile telephone companies currently will not tell retailers who is on the line, so if a customer hits a Web site through a Wap phone the retailer cannot tell who it is, making it impossible to personalise the interface and do marketing.

And the biggest issue of all is re-engineering. The content management companies will admit that once an organisation is constructed around content rather than its traditional interfaces with the customer, the highly departmental structure of retailing falls apart.

More people will be needed at the centre just worrying about content and how to make it available to customers.

The retailers that understand this are the dotcoms that have no existing infrastructure to maintain, and yet it is the bricks-and-mortar retailers with transaction, merchandising, fulfilment and logistics experience that may be better placed to fulfil demand once push turns to pull.

Get the facts

One place to go to learn about content management, apart from the various briefings offered by vendors, is GearUp 2000 in San Francisco on 2-3 October at the Argent Hotel, San Francisco, CA. For more information, contact Teja Patel on 001 408 530 5809.

Wap phones turn push into pull

The content management companies have all recently added Wap capability to their products. This seems to be more than just following a trend. Once customers can pull data from lots of different companies, they can compare prices. If the salesman says they are offering the best deal or choice on fridges, the customer can check without leaving the store. He can even check another supplier's stock, order and pay online. Retailers that are not prepared to give customers this level of visibility into their organisation will lose the sale.

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