CHICAGO -- Retailers searching through today's electronic catalog for a skillet to add to their product mix quickly discover the task is complicated and a skillet is not just a skillet.
There are different definitions, names, materials, sizes, handles, price points and ratings. Retailers have to search individual vendor databases to find pertinent information on the availability of preferred products. The searches are often time-consuming and frustrating. Most of the product information currently being sent electronically, mainly through traditional electronic data interchange, is limited in presentation and format. All vendors must communicate using the same text-based format and terminology.
Through an initiative begun two years ago, the National Housewares Manufacturers Association, Rosemont, Ill., hopes to greatly improve the depth, scope and usefulness of the electronic catalog.
What the future electronic catalog might be like in housewares was demonstrated here last month during the International Housewares Show at McCormick Place by searching for the right skillet. Participants in this initial test were Corning, Regal Ware, Mirro and Sears, Roebuck & Co.
The association has spent approximately $200,000 in developing a proof of concept using new Infomaster technology from Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. The method is radically different from the way product information is now selected, gathered and presented.
Instead of being confined in format and limited in language, Infomaster is flexible and virtual, it was said. It can go beyond simple text into detailed product data, images and, potentially, sound files and movies.
"This isn't about pretty pictures. It's about the colorful information integration software that is behind this demonstration," said Michael Genesereth, associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, who is part of the NHMA's electronic catalog project team.
"It allows companies to describe their products in their own words, brand names, sales and marketing terminology. To do so they don't have to compromise by fitting into a standard format that is content-driven. It gives people the freedom to communicate," he explained.
The big advantage is the virtual nature of the system. It is independent of place and can search multiple vendors' databases on the Internet and other computer networks for information.
Presently, electronic catalogs are mostly maintained by third-party Value-Added Network service providers like GE Information Systems, QRS and Sterling Commerce. Consequently, manufacturers must maintain redundant information depending on which VAN provider a retail customer uses. Infomaster would eliminate the need for more than one product database.
In the demo search for the right skillet, the desired product was defined through questions on product features-attributes. A search of participating vendors' smart catalogs was made and pertinent product data retrieved. Information on each product was displayed side by side on the user's computer screen so a retailer could easily make a comparative and competitive analysis.
The NHMA project team envisions that product queries could be made through the World Wide Web, in addition to being made through the current third-party provider on the VAN. The proof of concept prototype is a World Wide Web-based set of smart and virtual catalogs.
A smart catalog is an electronic catalog that contains, in a structured data format, information about one company's products and product attributes. A virtual catalog is assembled from the results of queries to several smart catalogs.
The project is to be completed in April, at which time the NHMA must decide whether to pursue this initiative. The association's initial efforts have been to define what the electronic product catalog of the future should be, said Chris Marti, the NHMA's director of finance and information technology.
The criteria used in developing the electronic catalog of the future are:
The ability for manufacturers, retailers and consumers to communicate different types of information.
The ability to communicate in a company's own language, using its own marketing and sales terms.
Creation of a cross-industry initiative and establishment of a generic process to enable industry groups to develop and maintain product information.
Exploration of alternative methods of data organization and communication that are technology neutral and not dependent on new hardware.
"We want an industry solution to accommodate the existing information technology infrastructure and to avoid reinvestment," added Marti.
Several executives from the supermarket channel positively endorsed the NHMA efforts. "I can envision a day in the future where that's where we'll get information about new products," said Charles Yahn, vice president of general merchandise at Associated Wholesalers Inc., York, Pa. "We'd use it if it were on the World Wide Web and we had easy access."
James DuCharme, general merchandise buyer and merchandiser at Fairway Foods, Minneapolis, uses the Internet for product resourcing and sees the number of nonfood suppliers on it growing every day. "This system is part of advances in the technological age. It's a more efficient use of time and will make our life easier," said DuCharme.