Wegmans Food Markets is known for its diversity of products, but even Wegmans doesn't carry a 5-foot-tall bottle of shampoo.
Yet that was the dimension provided by the shampoo's manufacturer -- a laughable but all too real example of the kind of data inaccuracy that retailers are dealing with these days.
Product data has become a hot topic with the advent last fall of the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN), the standards-based global network through which retailers and manufacturers can ensure that they are working with the same data. Now, as the food industry ramps up its activities in support of data synchronization, companies are also focusing on the accuracy of the data itself. Unless CPG manufacturers ensure that their product data accurately reflects the physical attributes of their products, the benefits of data synchronization will be lost.
In other words, garbage in, garbage out. "The quality of the data in the network is only as good or bad as the quality of the information put into the network by manufacturers," said Marianne Timmons, business-to-business director, Wegmans. "Synchronization does not inherently clean dirty data. It is only a mechanism with which to share information."
At Wegmans, data that's been synchronized via the GDSN is updated in the retailer's master item file. As a result, if a manufacturer sends information that is not accurate, it will adversely affect the entire supply chain, Timmons said.
"For example, if inaccurate dimensional data is sent, it can lead to under- or over-utilization of inbound and outbound transportation equipment as well as significant challenges with planograms at store level," she explained. Bad data can also impact warehouse management, new item introduction, financial processes and customer service.
Wegmans has been one of the trailblazers of data synchronization along with Wal-Mart and Supervalu. More than 298 Wegmans vendors have synchronized data for all of their products via the GDSN. Data for at least one item is being synchronized by more than 820 of its suppliers, while over 1,847 Wegmans suppliers -- representing 95% of its cost volume -- have signed on to synchronize data via the network.
Timmons and her team assumed that the suppliers participating in data synchronization had provided accurate information relating to its products' attributes, such as the physical dimensions for cases and items. That, however, was not the case. Much of the product data that the chain had been synchronizing with suppliers via the GDSN last year was inaccurate.
"I think [all retailers] took data accuracy for granted because the industry was so focused on getting data synchronized," Timmons said. "Wegmans was just the first to discover the realities [of data inaccuracy] because of our rapid progress in data synchronization."
Deciding to test its assumptions about its data quality, Wegmans last year performed its first data-accuracy audit on 50 randomly selected products. Information relating to each product's case and item dimensions, as well as GTIN/UPC information, was tested and compared with the actual products by a third-party auditor. The results were disheartening. Not one product had information that was completely accurate. Wegmans' suppliers were just as surprised as the retailer, Timmons said.
Most of the inaccuracies were related to case measurements, including width, depth and weight. For instance, sometimes a supplier would confuse a measurement such as the depth of a box for its width. "Some suppliers had really accurate data to begin with, but if you don't have really good business processes, [data quality] erodes over time," Timmons noted.
But suppliers are not entirely to blame. Specs for measurements "have been written in a way that is difficult to understand, and some of the terms are confusing," Timmons said. And retailers are responsible for any data changes made to accommodate their own distribution requirements, said Pam Stegeman, vice president, supply chain and technology, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington.
Subsequent to its initial test, Wegmans recognized the necessity of supplier outreach. "We hosted a series of Webinars for all of our grocery suppliers to educate them" on the importance of data cleanliness, Timmons said. "We also provide them with feedback on their current status."
The result has been a steady improvement in data accuracy. In the first follow-up test of 250 randomly selected products last summer, 12% of items were completely accurate. A more recent audit of 1,300 items this year, conducted with Wegmans' most "forward thinking" suppliers, showed even more progress, as 35% of items were completely accurate, Timmons said. One supplier had completely accurate information for all of its products. Even so, any accuracy rates below 100% are considered less than optimal.
Data accuracy has also been a focal point of the data synchronization efforts at Ahold, the Dutch retail giant with U.S. offices in Braintree, Mass. In the U.S., Ahold's Giant-Carlisle division, Carlisle, Pa., has started a data synchronization pilot involving item data from Procter & Gamble and other vendors within the GDSN. Giant-Carlisle is also working toward identifying discrepancies between suppliers' and the retailer's data.
The next step in Wegmans' crusade to correct bad data was a partnership between Wegmans and GS1 US (formerly the Uniform Code Council) launched early this year to set up a standardized industry audit of suppliers. As a result, GS1 US established Dimensioning Services, which provides ongoing audits to help ensure the accuracy of GDSN data provided by suppliers. "It is our hope that other retailers will participate in [Dimensioning Services] as we roll it out," Timmons said.
Although product attributes other than those relating to dimensions are being synchronized via the GDSN, Dimensioning Services, as the name implies, will focus specifically on the accuracy of dimensional data, since that is the area in which most discrepancies occur. Audits will be provided at suppliers' expense, said Mary Wilson, senior director, standards management, GS1 US.
Twenty-three Wegmans suppliers participated in the pilot of the auditing service. About 100 Wegmans suppliers are now taking part in audits. Suppliers whose names begin with the letters A through M have already begun the audit process, and the remainder will be rolled out this month, Wilson said.
Additional retailers will have their suppliers' dimensional data audited beginning in December, said Wilson, who could not provide specifics.
GS1 US plans to follow a quarterly audit schedule. "If discrepancies are found [with a particular product], audits will take place more frequently," Wilson said. If a supplier is able to prove for four consecutive quarterly audits that it can accurately measure and weigh products, the audits then take place on a semiannual basis.
Data inaccuracies will not revoke a supplier's ability to synchronize data via the GDSN. Participation in Dimensioning Services audits will, however, eventually be required of all suppliers synchronizing data via the GDSN, Wilson explained.
In auditing suppliers, GS1 US randomly selects three GTINs. The supplier is then asked to send a case of products and packing materials for each GTIN to Dimensioning Services so dimensions can be measured and compared to data. Suppliers are charged $50 per case. So far, only a small percentage of audited suppliers have completely accurate data.
Dimensioning Services also offers measuring services to suppliers to ensure that their data is accurate prior to an audit.
Global Consortium Targets Bad Data
The poor accuracy of synchronized data is not a problem limited to U.S. retailers and manufacturers. The issue has caused concern on a global level. I
In April, at the ECR Europe conference in Paris, a consortium of six trade associations was launched to tackle the issue. Among its member are Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association, both Washington-based; Brussels-based GS1; Global Commerce Initiative (GCI), Cologne, Germany; CIES, Paris; and AIM (Association des Industries de Marque, or European Brands Association) Brussels.
"We're working to develop a global path toward data accuracy that is useful for trading partners," said Pam Stegeman, vice president, supply chain and technology, GMA.
"We're examining a number of options to get us there. The six organizations are looking to ensure as little redundancy as possible."
So far the group has convened once in person and met via conference call at the end of July. Another in-person meeting is planned for December.
Part of the nameless consortium's membership is a workgroup comprising retailers and manufacturers including Wegmans Food Markets, Target, Tesco, Carrefour, Ahold, Kraft and Gillette, said Patrick Walsh, senior director industry relations, FMI.
"Over the last five years there has been substantial progress with data synchronization and electronic communications," Walsh said. "But data synchronization is not a solution unless the data is accurate."
The group will focus specifically on two areas: data accuracy process management and the attributes of accuracy, Walsh said. "Manufacturers need to go through certain processes to make sure that the data that they plan to share with retailers is, in fact, accurate," he said.
Standardized attributes of accuracy are being developed by the Global Standards Management Process (GSMP). GSMP is a standards body created by GS1 and GS1 US (formerly the Uniform Code Council).