Improving Speed to Market

By Charley Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of OptiCat LLC

Much has been made about the need for parts “speed to market” at all levels of the automotive aftermarket parts distribution system. While many companies have attempted to address this within their own walls via just-in-time and other processes, and some have worked with specific customers to further improve processes, there still remain many impediments to speeding parts to market with the quality and effectiveness that is most desirable.

Speed-to-market is impacted by many factors including parts availability, logistics and, often forgotten, catalog data availability. This article is focused on impediments related to the distribution of parts catalog data and how they can be overcome with proper industry focus and effort.

While the supplier CEO may have well asked the question, “How long does it take to get our products to our customers?” he or she may not have asked an important obvious question:

“How long does our catalog data require to reach our targeted markets?”

Why is catalog data “speed to market” important? Simply stated, if supplier data is not accurately available in the customer’s system, the product cannot be sold, regardless of whether the product is in the warehouse or not. In this context, it is important to note that data speed to market is worthless if the quality of the information available to the distribution system and product consumer is faulty or not compatible with customer requirements. Therefore, any discussion of speed must include quality in the same breath as they go hand-in-hand!

Here are some important speed-to-market impediments:

New Parts: As noted above, if parts don’t show up in your distributor’s catalogs, including at the store/shop level, then they might as well not exist. The catalog visibility of new parts is a critical element of a supplier’s selling capability. Many CEOs might assume that their parts, when physically available, are speeding to market and don’t know that, while the parts are ready to go, the data has not reached stores. This is relatively common since data can require up to nine months or more to “process” through many of the current data distribution systems/methods. In some cases, the data receivers simply skip the supplier data submission if they happen to be overwhelmed by the volume of data they receive in a given period. This means months of “no sales” as the supplier waits for the system to “catch up.” Unfortunately, the supplier is often the “last to know” if its data has been backlogged!

Part Changes: In the case of parts changes, data delays to market can be a serious problem. If parts are found to have serial defects or if important design changes are required for better parts performance, then delays in data “speed to market” mean more parts liability claims for suppliers/customers and potential supplier reputational issues. In cases of potential parts recalls, this is made even more troubling, as the official notification of parts problems to the distribution and installer levels could require too long a period for effectively addressing critical issues.

In both cases, new parts and parts changes (as well as parts phase-outs), sales can be lost and reputations are damaged both internally and externally. Interestingly, since there can be many “hand-offs” of the data between the supplier and the final users, we use the term “data receiver” to identify the “next” recipient of the data, in sequence.

Multiple Data Receivers with Unique Information Needs: Suppliers must deal with multiple receivers that may have unique data needs, including unique PIES or other information treatment related directly to that receiver only. In some cases, this has caused the supplier to maintain a unique “private label” catalog data set for each data receiver. Maintaining multiple data sets presents an increased chance of error and requires considerable added resources.

Sources of Speed to Market Problems

Thus, speed to market problems can arise from a number of causes, including:

Supplier internal issues: The supplier’s catalog department may not be using the most up-to-date tools to develop and disseminate its data. This can result in poor data quality and data receiver rejection of the data for “repair.” Suppliers may also not be “current” on the latest requirements of each data receiver, which can result in further delays. Suppliers may also “lose data” as they address data set updates due to a number of factors if they do not have the proper tools in place to track changes.

Data Receiver Issues: These fall into three unique categories: Data Intermediaries, Distributors and Digital Catalogs.

Data Intermediaries

In the earlier days of data development and distribution, suppliers did not have the internal capabilities to develop and distribute their own data due to the lack of accepted data standards. As a result, “data intermediary companies” grew-up to fulfill the need. In a few important cases, these companies developed their own data standards, including their own rules for data validation and dissemination.

The development of modern data standards by The Auto Care Association has provided the industry with structure and content that has unified communication among the channel partners. Unfortunately, these standards may not be fully compatible today with those of the earlier data intermediaries, nor do the new standards provide the clarity needed, as in the case of product attributes, for proper, detailed electronic searches. Also in a few cases data receivers have not adopted the new standards, thus causing additional pain for suppliers. This has resulted in ACES and PIES Standard compliant supplier data requiring modification in order to be compatible with distributor or data intermediary systems, with the result being added cost, an impact (sometimes significant) on speed to market and possible multiple presentations (such as naming conventions) of the same supplier information.

The same part, as an example, could be identified with different nomenclature in two (or more) different intermediary catalog presentations, in addition to the nomenclature used originally by the supplier. The differences in validation also mean that the ACES and PIES compliant data from the supplier may not comply with the validation done by the intermediary, thus resulting in data “ping ponging” as the supplier and intermediary go back and forth to correct the so called errors in the data. All these unfavorably impact speed-to-market.

Finally, the sheer volume of data and the variable quality of the data reaching the data intermediaries has overwhelmed their data processing capabilities, resulting in many cases, in long delays or skipped data submissions for suppliers. For any impacted supplier, this is an unacceptable condition.

Distributors

Many data receivers have unique data requirements (although they may accept validated Auto Care Association’s ACES and PIES Standards compliant data in the USA), including unique validation requirements, format requirements and others. Digital images represent a particular problem in this regard as many data receivers have specific requirements for image format, naming conventions and others. The anticipated growth in 360-degree rotatable images will exacerbate this issue in the future. In general, the sheer size of the data transfer task is overwhelming the catalog departments at data receivers causing delays at all levels of distribution.

Digital Catalogs

The advent of digital catalogs and their importance to parts research cannot be overemphasized. While actual parts sales online may not yet have earned large market share, the use of online resources for parts research may have reached over 60 percent of transactions, according to industry sources. Therefore, if the latest parts in supplier product lines, and their requisite complete data, are not available to the market in “near-real-time,” the supplier is placed at a real disadvantage. In some cases the parts are ready for shipment to the customer’s warehouse considerably before the parts data reaches the ultimate catalog. In addition, consideration must be given to the importance of “mobile friendly” data and catalog offerings that are easily readable on, and compatible with, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. These are clearly the communication mode of choice for more and more data consumers at all levels of the market.

Suggestions for Improving “Speed to Market”

So what does a CEO do about this problem? Here are some suggestions:

  • The CEO must ask the Obvious Question, “How long does our catalog data require to reach our targeted markets?” Today, it could take three months, nine months, a year or more for data to arrive where suppliers “need it to be.” In order to improve, one must first define a starting point. If all things worked perfectly today, supplier data might reach the catalog of a large distributor in two to three months after initial data submission. More typically for many suppliers this might require six months to nine months or more, depending on which intermediaries are involved. By establishing a “starting point,” an effective plan for improvement can be developed that is not unlike that used to improve set-up times on a factory floor.
  • Be sure supplier parts are being shown in an electronic catalog that has “near real time” presentation capability, with all the available information that customers need to make buying decisions, links to the supplier’s own marketing database and compatibility with mobile devices. Almost regardless of the intermediary, only the Internet-based communication link can ensure supplier data gets to market at the highest speed and that it arrives in the supplier’s intended format, since it bypasses all the systems that slow down the data (assuming, of course, that the right data distribution partner has been chosen). The best “time-to-market” utilizing this medium is a matter of hours from data submission to catalog viewing. This does not necessarily mean that sales can be made from this Internet-based catalog data, but at least the information will be available to customers so that misapplication of parts and several other issues identified above can be addressed. Suppliers should also encourage customers to review this data before making parts buying decisions.
  • Use all the great tools available to improve data quality and speed-to-market:
    • Take charge of supplier data. Only the supplier should be responsible for data quality and, to the greatest extent possible, timeliness. While this is not always true today due to some data intermediary actions, it is a good rule to follow. By taking responsibility and action, the supplier will maximize its probability of success.
    • Do everything possible to eliminate data “ping pong” activities by insuring that supplier data is compliant with each and every standard used by each data receiver that will process the data during its journey to market.
    • Communicate effectively with data receivers regarding the reasons for changes in supplier data. When data is changed, someone at the data receiver must determine whether the data change is appropriate, often called the “assessment process.” This arduous task can be made much more fluid by utilizing tools that provide great parts change communication as part of the data submission. This includes “net change” information supported by proper supplier tools that insure accurate data. Over time, the data receiver can build confidence in the supplier, thus improving the relationship and speed-to-market.
    • Tools are now available that can significantly reduce the effort required to support multiple “private label” customer data sets, including multiple part number variations on the same part, and reduce the chances of errors in data management and transfer. The supplier can now manage the master data set and “map” specific data for each customer use, thereby improving speed to market and reducing errors.
    • Image distribution, in itself, will be one of the defining issues facing data transmission. Today, each time a supplier submits its image data it is in the form of a “complete image set” containing all the supplier’s usable images (these are huge files). In the future, this will be accomplished via submitting only image “net changes,” wherein only the images that have changed (added, deleted or modified) need be submitted. The future is “today” as this capability is now rolling-out to the marketplace.

By addressing the suggestions provided here, many of today’s data-to-market issues can be eliminated or lessened. Ultimately, supplier CEOs have a substantive opportunity to improve their data speed-to-market, improve parts sales, reduce parts returns and reduce the expense of developing and disseminating catalog data. To achieve it, CEOs must begin with the “Obvious Question!”

AASA Supplier Essentials Editor’s Note: Charley Johnson is chief executive officer of OptiCat LLC, a leading data company serving the North American parts aftermarket (www.opticat.net). OptiCat supplies products and services that help suppliers effectively power their data to market with speed, efficiency and highest possible quality, thereby helping to “sell more parts!” OptiCat is the premier sponsor of the AASA Special Summit: “Defining Today’s Connected Aftermarket.” 

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