Things had come to a boil for American Italian Pasta Co., which has 1,500 retail items, a private label and a retail customer base that includes most major U.S. grocers.
Facing a mandate from its top retail customers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Wegmans Food Markets Inc., to synchronize product data through standards body UCCnet Inc.s GDSN (Global Data Synchronization Network) product data pool, the companys IT department had a tough decision to make. It could send data as is through the registry and hope for the best, or it could take a hard look at cleansing the data internally before sending it to customers through the registry.
AIPC decided to take the high road, but not just because it was the right thing to do. Data errors such as inaccurate unit quantity can have a domino effect throughout customers inventory and pricing systems.
As a result, the maker of Muellers, Ronco, Pennsylvania Dutch and Anthonys food products decided it had no choice but to clean up its data internally before synchronizing it with UCCnets registry, where its customers would retrieve data through an AIPC catalog.
The company turned to software developer Extol International Inc. for a data synchronization solution. Extol provides business-to-business automation and integration software to the midmarket.
The company installed Extols Business Integrator for UCCnet Services, an application for maintaining, managing, and synchronizing trade item data internally and for synchronizing the data with retail customers through UCCnet Services.
The decision has proved propitious to date—and has illustrated for AIPC the real issues involved with its data. There is an old saying that if you throw spaghetti against the wall and it sticks, then its ready. Unfortunately, when AIPC tried this, not much stuck.
“We took a small sample of [product] attributes, got them together in the database and published them to one customer—this was the customer that was pushing us toward [UCCnet],” said Sabrina Hunter, manager of UCCnet and data synchronization at AIPC, in Excelsior Springs, Mo. “It was probably 25 items. Every single item came back with some sort of discrepancy.”
That prompted an initial discovery phase. First, AIPC reviewed the business processes around each product. Then the company looked at its internal processes for product naming.
Hunter found 23 touch points where a decision about product item data could be made—that amounted to 23 potentially different descriptions for the same product.
“Just to clean up our data internally, we included almost every department from our company and went through a discovery phase—trying to find out about product attributes, where they came from and a way to implement accurate data and get that out to our customers,” said Hunter. “That was a five- to six-month process. It was quite an effort.”
Once AIPC was able to determine the life cycle for each inventory item, it could identify loopholes in the system, such as the ability to change product information without letting others know about the change.
“Pulling that together was the biggest challenge,” said Hunter, who acknowledged that the eventual goal is to close all the loopholes for product data attributes in all phases—from production through promotions—with an automated workflow thats processed through Extols software.
A Whole New Deal
During the second phase of AIPCs project, the company installed Extols UCCnet software, a process that took approximately three weeks. Once it published that first set of attributes to a customer, it was able to clean the data even further and, finally, get to one version of product data.
The third phase of the project is under way now. It includes trying to produce system-generated processes—an effort that requires enforced discipline across the company and includes adding new attributes for a new item, making changes to an existing item, or publishing and confirming notifications from customers, according to Hunter.
“Right now, were on hold with that and trying to get everything completed this year,” said Hunter, who has been focusing on getting all branded items registered and out to AIPCs catalog on UCCnet. Hunter said her goal is that when AIPCs customers say theyre ready to go with UCCnet, all shell have to do is publish to the registry.
Extol, which is based in Franklin Lakes, N.J., has been following supply chain mandates for a number of years and often bases new software development on the issues those mandates create.
“About two years ago, 37 retailers announced they would be selling through UCCnet. [As a supplier], when [those retailers] get together, youve got to do it, too,” said Steven Rosen, vice president of marketing at Extol. “We investigated and found two ways to address the issues that we know need to be addressed in terms of internal synchronization. We chose [one] and built our product so that a company could not merely rapidly and quickly communicate the wrong data, but get one version of the truth and send that on to your customer.”
The Business Integrator software connects to UCCs GDSN data pool. It essentially feeds synchronized data from AIPC, for example, into the registry and then communicates back to the supplier when the customer has accepted the data or when there is an issue with it.
The advantage to retailers is that they have to connect only to the GDSN to see product-related data and not to dozens or hundreds of suppliers. The registry forces suppliers to adhere to a standard product data format; it also means that suppliers such as AIPC have to take on new technology initiatives, but such initiatives give AIPC a competitive advantage as well.
“Besides being pushed by a customer or two to get into the process, we have to think about our competition, too,” Hunter said. “Theyre going to be on board with data synchronization efforts. And we want our customers to have access to our catalog; we want our items out there and visible to everyone. It will just get better. At first, it was pretty confusing. Its a whole new deal.”
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