Out of Babel
Software maker Blue Martini Software, Microsoft, color company Pantone and data network QRS plan to announce this week that they will develop the National Retail Federations Product Attribute System a kind of dictionary of consumer goods descriptions.
The problem is simple: While the Internet has paved the way for information to flow freely within and beyond companies, everyone still speaks a different language, so digital content is held up and converted at the borders. That keeps consumers from finding what they want and prevents retailers and manufacturers from easily tracking how well their products are selling.
"Everybody defines things in different ways," said Cathy Hotka at the National Retail Federation, a trade group. "You must normalize."
The NRF had begun working to create uniform standards on how to describe consumer goods, but has only now recruited retailers and technology companies to develop and promote the standard.
"Youre seeing a coming together of a lot of companies that are trying to work together consistently," said Deborah Levinger, director at MSN Shopping, one of the participants.
The challenge of enabling seamless data interchange has become so huge and expensive that rivals such as America Online and Microsoft, or Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue are joining the effort. In the latest announcement, Blue Martini, which makes e-commerce platforms, will incorporate the naming system into its own applications.
"The ability to do e-commerce is improved by intelligence at the item level. What we need is the data. We need the images, the attributes for search," said Vahe Katros, retail specialist at Blue Martini.
Microsofts MSN Shopping Network will contribute a database format for appliances that it has created in partnership with Sears, Roebuck & Co. This would make Sears and MSN Shoppings existing product descriptions part of the code, as well as give them a place in developing future language.
The NRF system has already defined apparel terms, but has yet to do automotive goods, baby products, food, lawn care, toys and other categories.
The system would allow merchants to post more products online and still give customers faster, more detailed results in their searches, Levinger said.
"If everyone sets up product attributes differently [in databases], its hard to share data and talk about that," she said.
QRS, an electronic data interchange network, will incorporate the system into its catalog, which contains about 80 million unique product codes. Retailers use it to buy goods from vendors, but retailers and vendors squabble over product information, according to Jerry Campbell, who runs the catalog.
"Retailers need as much information about these products as they can [get]. If they cant get it from manufacturers, they make it up themselves, which is a bad thing. Manufacturers have been reluctant to provide copious amounts of information because they feel theyre losing control of their brand," he said.
In addition to the verbal descriptions, visual images are another big problem, starting with color. Pantone will match its color system, used by graphic designers and cosmetics, textile and other industries, to the more general NRF system, which is used by retailers.
"The whole of the retail chain, from catalogers to retailers, should speak a color language," said Richard Herbert, Pantones executive vice president. Pantone is also introducing a handheld spectrophotometer that will match the color of any object to Pantone color codes.
But searchability is only part of a larger issue of preparing goods for online merchandising, Katros said. Without the ability to let customers examine, touch and manipulate goods in person, Web retailers have to provide more visual and contextual information to consumers in new ways.
The NRF and other groups, such as the Uniform Code Council and the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Group, are working on standards for making goods "Web-ready." These include standards for how product photos are taken and provided by vendors, as well as a variety of other information.
Without the standards, consumers could remain lost online, and retailers would continue to lose money and time, according to Katros.