It’s 11:00 PM: Do You Know Where Your Inventory Is?

The Holy Grail of multichannel commerce is unifying databases to simplify both the management of all business data and the operation of systems that rely on it, thus eliminating independent data silos that segregate data and require duplication of effort—which is costly, error-prone and just simply inefficient.

Nobody said this was easy. For almost every multichannel merchant, unifying data about physical inventory across all channels would be a major victory. Just knowing real-time inventory levels and statuses for all SKUs in all warehouses and in all stores (and ideally at each drop-shipper, if you have access to that data), is a great victory—assuming, of course, that you know quantities on-hand/committed as well as on-hand/available.

If you know quantities on store shelves by store, even better (and you’ll need to know that if you allow store pick-up for online sales—and you’ll need a way to allocate those items in real-time, as well).

More to the story
But unifying data about physical inventory is a mere skirmish in a much larger war. There are several other major categories of inventory data that need to be taken into account such as: supply chain data, warehouse location data, item master SKU profile data, SKU metadata, product information management, catalog production management, content management data, and image management data.

Each of these is usually managed in a separate system, and only rarely are they integrated. Whether you want to attempt such integration depends on a variety of factors, but the short answer is usually that the effort would be more trouble than it is worth.

Unlike customer and order data, inventory data does not change that often (except for quantity data, which is fairly easily handled in linked order management, ecommerce and WMS systems). And the need to have all varieties of inventory data managed from a single touchpoint is not as mission-critical as it is with order data or customer data.

Nevertheless, it pays to understand all of the instances of inventory data that these other systems manage.

The supply chain
Some companies have no supply chain management software, while others have three, four or more different systems to handle the purchase and acquisition of the items they sell. Still others have all-in-one platforms that tackle a variety of important tasks.

Take Logility, for example. Its suite of fully integrated modules includes:

Demand optimization
Demand planning; Life cycle planning; Event planning; Fashion forecasting

Inventory optimization
Inventory planning

Value chain collaboration
Sales and operations planning

Supply optimization
Supply planning; Supply optimization; Manufacturing planning

Transportation and logistics optimization
Network design (for decisions on sourcing, production planning, distribution strategies, capital investments, and facility and asset location); Transportation planning and management
WarehousePRO (for WMS and fulfillment)

Performance management (for visibility to and exception management of forecasts, orders, shipments and inventory)

In addition to those elements, you might also want or need applications or modules to track and manage foreign imports and customs/duties payments, licensing and royalties, and advanced shipping notices from your suppliers.

On the outbound side, which your order management, WMS or fulfillment solution(s) handle, specialized requirements can include climate/temperature zone management (don’t ship chocolate on Friday if it won’t be delivered until Monday in a warm destination), gift order fulfillment, item kitting and personalization, and micromanagement of shipping using zone skipping and optimization of service levels (and best-way shipping calculations) from all of your shippers (and of course there are specialized systems for that).

Content management
Everything else is virtual, and a variation on content management.

For your OMS and WMS, you need SKU profile data that includes length/width/height/weight or dimensional/weight, package sizing/quantities with quantity conversions, country of origin, hazardous material codes, item substitutes, shipping restrictions, item status (and live/dormant start/end dates), caging/high-value code, and so on. Many of these need to be available via your ecommerce platform, as well.

But content management per se goes much further than that, and focuses especially on item descriptions: a short name, a long name, a call center description, a web description and a catalog description. A system like the Stibo STEP platform not only handles all of this, but also manages workflow for distributing the data where and when it is needed—such as in a graphic design system for catalog layout, or to an ecommerce platform for webpage display.

Sometimes called “catalog management software,” it is easy to confuse these with order management systems used by catalog companies, which are sometimes classified with the identical label (which I happened to coin in the 1980s, before these content management systems existed).

There are, of course, specialized systems for management of product images, such as the Adobe Creative Suite. Somehow, though, you have to manage all of the images (full size and thumbnails, diagrams, model shots, item with background, item cropped with no background, and so on) that you need for multiple websites, affiliate sales, catalogs (of all sizes), fliers, mailers, and so on.

Content management based on descriptive data can be equally complex and involves not only data related to the item itself, but metadata used on websites to facilitate search engine optimization and site search functionality.

Site search is an intriguing discipline. There are dozens of specialized site search tools, including SLI Systems and the related SiteChampion, Endeca, SearchSpring, Adobe Search&Promote (formerly from Omniture), BayNote, PicoSearch, Nextopia, Fusionbot, jrank, CyberSiteSearch and atomz. The big challenge with site search (or any search) is that prospects or customers don’t always (or usually) search for things in the way someone would who is intimately familiar with your product line.

So not only do you have to accommodate mistyping and misspelling (or is it mis-spelling—and what do you do with mis-sepllling?), you also have to take into account brand names vs. generic terms, model numbers (which can be different on identical products), and brief vs. full product names (“joy stick” vs. “push-button joy stick”). And what about “gearbox” vs. “gear box”?

A tool like FindWatt can help set up product information and categories that are search-friendly. Their services include things like: De-abbreviation; De-concatenation; Basic faceting; Advanced faceting; Standardization; Normalization; Inference

And all of the above come with the territory in this exacting but creative discipline.

And then, of course, there’s Pinterest (a contemporary version of shared window-shopping, putting your product images “out there” and “out of context”), along with Facebook and Twitter and other social sites where your content can show up. There’s much potential here, but also issues to be concerned about, of the “camel’s nose in the tent” variety.

As this brief overview reveals, keeping track of your inventory, whether physical or virtual, is anything but easy. Both actually and digitally, it is a constantly moving target.

Ernie Schell is director of Marketing Systems Analysis.