9 questions that determine if a vendor’s PIM is genuine – or just a glorified database
There’s a common ideology among digital commerce experts, industry analysts, and B2B advisors that for a business to be truly omnichannel, it must utilize a product information management (PIM) solution to establish a single source of the truth for its product data. (Watch video: What is a PIM & Why Should Distributors and Wholesalers Care?) From this central PIM source, organizations can deliver clean, accurate data consistently and reliably to every touchpoint of their business, whether it be to internal systems or to outside channel partners and marketplaces. With more information to distribute and more channels to support, a dedicated PIM built into an eCommerce solution is the best way to manage a successful B2B business today.
Yet, as PIM popularity has grown in the wholesale distribution market, so has the number of eCommerce providers who claim their platform has an inherent PIM. While many vendors use the term “PIM” liberally with their prospects, in actuality, they provide nothing more than a glorified database to house product data.
“When you take a closer look at these vendors’ PIM’s functionality, it’s not up to par with what many people who are serious about digital commerce would consider PIM capabilities,” asserts Scott Frymire, SVP of Marketing at Unilog. “Not having a true PIM solution can handcuff you down the road when you’re looking to take that next step in your digital commerce journey. And it can lead to higher cost and more headaches.”
All PIMs are not alike, so before you look for an eCommerce provider to build or enhance your digital branch, let us explain the critical roles a true PIM plays in an organization’s ecosystem and arm you with key questions to ask digital commerce vendors to determine if their PIM has the capabilities to meet your business needs.
Compelling reasons why a PIM is key to your ecosystem
Unlike an ERP system, a PIM does so much more than feed data to your eCommerce site; it integrates all the channels of your business to deliver consistent, quality product experiences at an enterprise level. Its controlled environment allows you to maximize your product data, streamline your processes, and drive efficiency across your organization.
Let’s review the many ways a PIM improves your business:
- Enables an omnichannel business strategy
Distributors use multiple channels to reach their buyers. Beyond branch locations and eCommerce sites, many businesses also utilize third-party marketplaces, mobile apps, print catalogs, and social media to sell their products and promote their brands. To achieve a consistent user experience across those channels – in other words, an omnichannel business – requires a PIM. This approach focuses on the needs of the customer to make their every interaction with a business engaging, efficient, and consistent. According to IDC Retail Insights, retailers that employ omnichannel marketing strategies see a 15 to 35% increase in average transaction size and a 30% higher lifetime value than those buyers who shop using only one channel.
- Eliminates data silos
When business teams house product information in their own systems and databases, updates and changes are not automatically communicated back to all systems. The result is disparate, outdated data across channels. A PIM eliminates these issues by becoming the single, trusted source for product information across the organization – from sales and marketing to customer service. Each group procures their product data from the PIM knowing that it provides the most current and reliable information available.
- Allows organizations to build and manage multiple catalogs
An authentic PIM supports an omnichannel strategy with its versatile catalog management capabilities. It allows an organization to build and maintain separate catalogs for their different needs, whether it be their eCommerce storefront, online marketplaces, print catalogs, or ERP system. Each catalog can contain a subset of items from the master catalog, enabling a distributor to control the products they want made available to a specific customer, audience, or channel.
- Continually enriches and governs product data
The first step to creating a superior customer experience is to provide clean product data. Inconsistent product information, duplicate items, incorrect images, and even misspelled words can frustrate a buyer and jeopardize a sale. A PIM has integrated data quality management (DQM) controls that help you cleanse, normalize, and validate the product data to create a golden record of a distributor’s entire product catalog. DQM is a critical function that no ERP system provides and is a clear differentiator for those businesses that utilize it.
- Synchronizes and publishes product information
Managing enormous and complex product catalogs can be an overwhelming task. But, with a centralized PIM system, B2B organizations can source, standardize, and export millions of products to different channels based on their channel-specific needs or audience. This flexibility gives businesses more control over how their products are represented.
- Increases operational efficiencies
A PIM has built-in approval processes and workflows to help alleviate any bottlenecks that can occur when publishing product changes and launching new products. At each step of the workflow, the PIM sends notifications to approvers to speed up the review process and improve your time to market. Employees can save time searching for the latest product content by going straight to the PIM for any information they need related to a product: from product descriptions and pricing to product images and documents like user guides and spec sheets.
This multi-faceted tool revolutionizes product information management by streamlining processes, supporting channels, and strengthening your brand. Yet, while we laud a PIM’s many benefits, know there are a wide range of advertised PIMs on the market; some of which do not perform the essential functions of a true PIM.
Understanding the spectrum of PIM tools
Wholesale distributors have a few options when it comes to implementing a PIM. They can partner with an eCommerce solution provider like Unilog that has a best-in-class PIM tool built into its platform. Unilog’s PIM is designed to work with the components of its eCommerce platform to ensure full interoperability with a B2B organization’s existing ERP and back-end systems.
The Unilog PIM has all the necessary tools, functions, and standardization capabilities needed to power a digital branch, plus it acts as the central source for product data for an enterprise. It works hand-in-hand with Unilog’s digital commerce platform to provide an efficient way to control every component of product information, including sophisticated functions like data quality, taxonomy, digital assets, and item relationships.
There are eCommerce providers that claim to also have a PIM built into their digital commerce platform but, for those distributors committed to building an omnichannel business, these imposters’ products come up short. In some cases, their PIM is really just a repository of product data. It may be able to house product data for thousands of items, but beyond that, it doesn’t have the ability to build and assign categories, manage multiple catalogs, store product images and documents, and feed the data to multiple channels in different formats like Unilog’s PIM can.
As another option, distributors can work with a standalone PIM provider that can integrate their PIM tool with the distributor’s existing commerce platform and ERP system. While there are robust PIM solutions available, the complexity as well as cost to implement their PIMs can be enormous – up to six figures a year. Noah Kays, VP of Content Delivery at Unilog, has talked with many businesses that considered bolting on an eCommerce platform and separate PIM to their existing ERP, until they learned about the functional impacts and limitations involved. “The beauty of Unilog’s solution is that it skips the costly pain of multiple system integrations with its convergent platform and PIM,” explains Kays.
Ajay Kamble, Chief Information Officer at Turtle & Hughes, knew the significant time and money involved with multiple system integrations, so the independent electrical and industrial distributor partnered with Unilog to implement the CIMM2 eCommerce platform with its inbuilt PIM. “It’s a monumental task to get a PIM up and running, so having the [Unilog] PIM already built into the software was a huge plus for us,” says Kamble.
With divergent PIM offerings available, how do distributors distinguish true PIM tools from imposters and determine which solution is right for them? To help, we put together a list of questions to ask digital technology providers about specific PIM functionality.
Nine questions that determine if a vendor’s PIM is the real deal or an imitation
Not all PIMs are created the same, and not all product data management tools are actually PIMs. Separate the genuine ones from the fakes with these investigative questions:
- Does your PIM offer taxonomy management?
Taxonomy is the practice of classifying, organizing, and naming products in a way that makes sense to buyers and helps them find products with ease on your website. A good taxonomy is the foundation of any successful digital branch which is why a vendor’s PIM should give you the ability to create, modify, and sync categorization and hierarchy changes directly within its tool. Product offerings may change, as may customer needs, so it is critical businesses have control of their taxonomy to adjust it with the marketplace.
Specific taxonomy management questions:
- Can I set up a hierarchy, define attributes, and assign items to multiple categories?
- Can I modify the taxonomy and apply the changes easily across the data catalog?
- Can I work on a revised version while another is still in use?
- Does it have a data model in place?
Along with a taxonomy, a digital branch needs a prebuilt data model that has been industry-vetted. This data model contains every single attribute that a business uses to build to and load their products. Beyond attributes like category name, brand name, and part number, a data model should also include global attributes like package weight, package quantity, warranty, and country of origin. The PIM’s data model should also be expandable so that you can develop the fields to meet your needs.
Specific data model questions:
- Are defined global attributes already built in to the PIM?
- Can I expand those global attributes to meet my needs without the help of a developer?
- Can that data then be exposed and managed like all the other data in the application itself?
- Can the PIM maintain product groups, related items, and other types of product associations?
A PIM can be instrumental in enhancing the customer experience by creating product associations and relationships that provide a quicker path to purchase. If you sell six sizes of the same work gloves or numerous lengths and widths of a screw, the PIM allows you to group these similar items together into a product family and present them as one product with available options on your website. A robust PIM should support both the item level requirements for product groupings and the dynamic taxonomy management needed to implement the differentiating attributes.
Example of a product group of knit gloves where buyers can choose the specific color and size they want without having to scroll through a long list of separate items online
An integrated PIM should also give you the ability to link products for up-sell and cross-sell opportunities. When a buyer searches for a product, your site can display similar types of items or corresponding items that complement the product in their search.
Specific product association questions:
- Can I create product groups and identify differentiator attributes that can appear as a dropdown on the product detail page?
- Does the tool let me associate items that can display at the bottom of the web page?
- Is it able to integrate and sync with different sources?
Like many distributors, you may rely on multiple sources for product data, whether it be product data from numerous manufacturers or a content subscription from a data warehouse like Affiliated Distributors (AD). A PIM must be able to source the data from multiple third-party resources, apply controls to determine which information to merge, which to overwrite, and then synchronize it into your master record. These complex data management and synchronization functions can only be achieved with a true PIM.
Specific data synchronization questions:
- Can your PIM subscribe to data feeds from multiple third-party sources?
- Can I apply data governance rules to the ingested data to maintain one golden record?
- Does it allow multiple product catalogs?
As we said, a big benefit of an inherent PIM is the ability to create and manage more than one product catalog. The typical B2B distributor utilizes multiple channels to sell their product offerings. However, not all their products are sold on every channel or are applicable to every audience. With a robust PIM, businesses can build separate catalogs for each channel to offer a more personalized and relevant shopping experience.
Specific product catalog questions:
- Does your PIM allow me to create multiple catalogs or assign catalogs for specific customers?
- Can the PIM provide a curated view of only the items I specify?
- Does it provide a data quality management (DQM) tool?
A DQM tool is essential to product information management. Unlike an ERP system, the PIM is designed to clean all the data it receives by standardizing and normalizing it to your specifications. For example, it can perform mass attribute value changes by finding non-standard values and normalizing them to one common display across your entire catalog.
Clean, normalized data looks good and leaves a lasting impression with buyers – especially those shopping on your website. It’s apparent when a distributor is not implementing a PIM and/or the tool’s DQM feature, in particular in the left navigation menu where you can filter products by their attribute values.
When data is not cleansed and normalized, the results are inconsistent attribute filter values and a poor eCommerce site user experience
Specific DQM questions:
- Can I create rules and validations so I can apply bulk changes to my data?
- Can I export my data, make bulk changes, and then import the data back into the PIM?
- Are reporting tools built into the PIM to track and measure the data?
- Does it offer digital assets management (DAM) capabilities?
If you utilize digital assets like product images for more than just your eCommerce website, you want the ability to reuse them and manipulate them as needed. Without a PIM, this is extremely tedious work. A DAM tool makes managing your digital assets quick and efficient.
Let’s say you have an item that requires a new product image. If you sell that item on your eCommerce site and a third-party marketplace like Amazon Business, and also feature it in a print catalog, you would normally have to access multiple systems to update the image for all three channels. But, with a PIM’s built-in DAM, you can change the image in one place and have the update reflect across all the channels at once.
DAM is also useful for making bulk digital asset changes, such as assigning an image or supporting document like a brochure to multiple items. The tool can also create renditions of images to produce the specific size, scale, and compression needed for each distribution channel.
Specific DAM questions:
- Can I assign a digital asset to more than one item in the PIM tool?
- Can I make bulk changes and bulk assignments?
- Can I render my images in different versions?
- Can the PIM provide audit trails of all changes made in the system?
Another way to maintain data quality and eliminate errors is through audit trails. This vital tool records the actions made by every user in the PIM. Its detailed log provides a complete revision history including the type of modification made, the user who made the change, and a comparison of the previous and new values. Audit trails simplify data management troubleshooting and allow you to revert back to previous versions.
Specific audit trails questions:
- Can I track all changes made by our users as well as data imports and merges?
- Am I able to revert back to earlier edits?
- Does your tool have advanced import and export functions?
Most PIMs allow users to export their data, make mass changes to it, then import the data back into the system. But, with more sophisticated PIMs, many updates can be made right in the system without having to manage a massive spreadsheet – or rely on IT’s help. The PIM helps you respond more quickly to urgent data issues on your storefront.
Advanced PIM tools simplify data exporting so you can pull any piece of data from the system in a variety of formats to serve channel needs. Say you have to deliver 15 specific data fields for your fastener products each week to a partner like ChannelAdvisor. Once you set up your custom export parameters, the PIM maps those specific data fields to the data model and then automatically sends the report to your channel partner.
Specific import/export questions:
- Can I make bulk changes to my data without having to export and re-import it back into the PIM?
- How quickly will data changes made reflect on my storefront?
- Can I create custom exports and set the tool up to send the exports to different channels without having to rely on engineering for assistance?
Finding the right platform and PIM solution can be a difficult journey. But now that you understand the differences between a true PIM and an imitation, and know the targeted questions to ask, your path to choosing the ideal solution will be clearer.
If you’re looking for a tight technology integration between your digital and physical sales channels, talk to the experts at Unilog. As a leading eCommerce and content services provider for the wholesale distribution marketplace, Unilog’s all-in-one eCommerce solution has all the components to manage and grow your digital branch including:
- configurable site search,
- an advanced shopping cart with multiple checkout options,
- a comprehensive API tool set to integrate with any other applications and back-end systems you use – including most ERPs,
- an intuitive content management system (CMS),
- mobile-friendly design, and
- a built-in PIM.
Unilog’s PIM-centric platform was recently awarded the most gold medals by B2B eCommerce expert Andy Hoar in his 2020 Paradigm B2B Combine, an evaluation of digital commerce solutions for midmarket businesses. In his report, Unilog’s PIM received a best-of-breed distinction and was a standalone gold medal winner for its overall content and data management capabilities. If you want to achieve best-in-breed for your digital branch, partner with Unilog today.