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ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning for Retail with PIM

In the business world it’s almost become a cliché — the large organization struggling to upgrade from a legacy software system gets bogged down in the process and sees its productivity and bottom-line performance struggle as a result. Some never manage to get through the process, instead retaining those legacy systems longer, compromising their organization’s operational capacity and competitive standing, while opening the door to increased risk in areas such as security.

This challenge is felt even more acutely by organizations attempting to upgrade their enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

ERP systems help organizations manage core business processes from marketing and inventory control, to human resources and accounting. They are often huge, lumbering programs that provide businesses across sectors with real-time data and predictive analytics that help them formulate important operational decisions. Because ERP platforms are so integral to the operation of successful corporations—due in large part to the fact that they can effectively integrate and share information across various applications—downtime is not an option.

Nowhere is this more important than in the retail sector. To be truly competitive, medium to enterprise-level retailers need robust ERP systems to keep a step ahead of rivals. Without a flexible ERP solution, retailers often struggle to implement and maintain effective omnichannel strategies. With industry-wide consolidation the trend as the market share-gobbling growth of powerhouse retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. continues almost unchecked, a lax approach to technology upgrades can pose a significant threat to organizational success.

Retailers & Legacy Systems

Because legacy systems aren’t always sufficient in helping retailers manage sales across channels—after all, many of these systems were built before the explosion of digital retail—software makers such as Bristol, UK-based Brightpearl gained traction by developing software-as-a-service ERP systems tailored to the retail industry. The aim was to simplify implementation, maintenance and improve performance for retailers who struggled to manage their rapidly evolving multi-channel operations with legacy systems produced by industry giants such as Oracle Corporation.

So, does that mean that retailers should scrap their legacy ERP systems? Absolutely not. On the contrary, those systems are still critical to the smooth functioning of any organization. ERP makers continue to innovate and update their software to deliver value to clients across industries. But they can’t do it all. Brightpearl, for example, excels in helping retailers in areas ranging from resource planning and accounting, to fulfillment and reporting. Where virtually all ERP software falls short is in product data enrichment—or the structuring, categorization, publication and aggregation of product and order information across multiple retail platforms.

PIM – Product Information Management

Enter product information management (PIM) software. PIMs are supplementary middleware that allow retailers to combine information from an ERP platform to create a comprehensive master system capable of handling all product merchandising. Integrating a PIM with an ERP platform is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways for eCommerce retailers—not to mention manufacturers and distributors—to manage product across channels, while also handling core business operations in a single platform and offsetting any legacy ERP shortcomings.

When global adhesive manufacturer Avery Dennison Corporation, reached out to our team for help, they faced a common systems-integration problem.

Avery Dennison’s printers, fasteners and solutions division had been utilizing a legacy ERP system by Oracle that was still delivering impressive results. But when they needed to develop a new BigCommerce Enterprise storefront, integrating the two systems posed a major challenge. The company needed a system that could scale and grow over time, providing it with the flexibility needed to expand global eCommerce sales.

We provided the necessary consultation and insight to understand the challenge and coordinate an action plan, then worked with a partner to design and develop the new digital storefront, integrating a custom payment gateway into the BigCommerce platform. The result: our customer now has a nimble B2B website with easy-to-use payment and has the added advantage of being able to manage product information and tie in relevant data to its ERP system.

This was also a more cost-effective approach than attempting to swap out their legacy ERP software, which would have been prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

We can’t underestimate the importance of that last point.

Choose PIM for your Retail eCommerce system

With the advent of online marketplaces and electronic data interchange (EDI) feeds between smaller retailers and their enterprise trading partners such as a Wal-Mart and Home Depot, it’s often far too costly for an ERP firm to develop one-off PIM solutions for a single client — not to mention the fact that ERP software firms may lack the technology needed to match the offerings of PIM-specific providers. Factor in the critically expensive implementation costs, and it’s clear why third-party PIM software makers are often the choice for everyone from budget-conscious enterprise-level retailers to their growth-hungry, medium-sized competitors.

Once integrated, a robust PIM system brings more value to ERP systems because the retailer can publish to channels and marketplaces, but aggregate all order information back to the PIM and flow data to ERP or accounting systems. That alleviates the need to export data to an eCommerce financial or accounting system. This dramatically improves order fulfillment time and simplicity, particularly when managing orders across multiple warehouses.

Even the largest ERP firms are leveraging third-party PIM systems because they need to provide the most robust solutions possible to their customers and would rather outsource that responsibility by working with the very best service providers in the industry, rather than investing the capital to develop a competitive product that may well prove inferior. Developing those partnerships only helps deepen the ERP firm’s relationship with their customers, drives client retention and expands the scope of their product offerings.

Retailers should remember that competing in the age of digital retail doesn’t mean jettisoning legacy ERP systems. The more effective strategy is to find a complementary system that helps them achieve game-changing results for less. It’s an approach that not only makes sense, but could provide the competitive advantage that organizations such as yours need to be successful as digital retail continues to dominate the market in the years ahead.

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PIM Integration with Bigcommerce Enterprise

What is a PIM?

A PIM system stands for Product Information Management; a middleware software solution that abstracts and protects your organization’s unique product data, including SKU data, product photography, merchandizing meta-data and pricing information from any particular underlying commerce platform or ERP system.

In short, a PIM is used to provide your overall modern ecommerce infrastructure with flexibility. Consider the following example: products for your online store are often mastered directly by hand inside the Bigcommerce admin console (or another similar web-based management tool).

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it presents multi-channel publication challenges which become increasingly important for retailers who want to sell product in their physical brick-and-mortar stores, via Amazon or eBay and through a variety of alternative online stores that may be branded differently or contain products that are meant for different consumption audiences (such as B2C versus B2B customers).

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Manage Your Product Data Once, Publish Anywhere

Imagine mastering your products professionally in one centrally hosted software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution and then publishing it to many places at once, automatically. That’s what a PIM in the modern omnichannel sphere is for, and it’s becoming increasingly important for mid to large sized enterprises as part of their efforts to streamline workflows and create more sophisticated information management stacks. It’s been my observation that most SMB’s who sell physical goods and have SKU counts larger than 500 or so could benefit from a PIM as well.

Once your products are added, barcoded, photographed, categorized, merchandised and lit up to various portals or publication channels inside your PIM, automation rules are created that publish to a limitless number of platforms, including your Bigcommerce store itself of course.

A professional PIM can also be setup to aggregate sources from multiple inbound feeds. Say for example as a retailer you’d like to automatically create product that you can publish to your Bigcommerce store, while also setting rules so that your staff can go in and simply:

  • Review the data that’s come in from the inbound feeds or ERP ingestion pipeline
  • Massage the data a little bit, adding custom photos and pricing where needed
  • Setup merchandising rules such as categories, attributes, tags, promotions, sales, etc.
  • Define its publication channels (i.e. which stores does this product sell from?)
  • Define custom price groups & tiers or other override data like names or imagery depending on publication channel
  • Finally, decide which store(s) or output channels you’d like to publish too (and at what frequency) and the PIM takes care of the rest

I have clients who publish their content not only to Bigcommerce via our PIM, but also to third party professional search services such as Nextopia, Google Merchant Center (for remarketing ads), Amazon, and eBay. Having your staff master product only once and not countless times in multiple back-end admin consoles, is the only sane way to manage anything more than a few hundred SKU’s, let alone tens of thousands!

A PIM really shines when connected to your inventory management system (IMS), such as JDA, MS Dynamics Navision, NetSuite, etc. Many of these older legacy all-in-one back office platforms don’t offer an incredibly vast selection of product merchandising or meta-data capability on their own however, and usually fall down with respect to professional media management and provision for very fine grained customization.

What’s more, a PIM enables sophisticated and extremely granular user access controls all centered around the product data itself, which becomes important in keeping your more junior staff away from pricing data in your ERP, or any other sensitive financial information in your accounting platform. You might not believe how many times I’ve seen junior staff with usernames/password access to the entire financial platform, including views of the balance sheet and income statement, just so they can also update web descriptions for their bosses’ online store!

Another additional architectural nicety of a PIM is that you can train your staff on one solution to use, instead of having to train them on manually publishing product data to various storefronts one-by-one. Imagine the margin for user error here! In fact, when you’re done imagining, here’s a concrete and less imaginative stat to illustrate the point. The ratio for erroneous entry to accurate entry is typically 1:4. No wonder manually managed product data or (even worse, inventory counts) result in stock count fill issues and customer satisfaction & returns fallout rates of 25% or more.

Publishing products from our professional PIM to Bigcommerce Enterprise

Now that I’ve detailed what a PIM is, and hopefully articulated some of the unadulterated sanity in using one, let’s outline below what was involved in connecting our PIM to the Bigcommerce API.

Our PIM was developed atop the increasingly popular Laravel MVC framework and the original prototype was developed specifically against the Bigcommerce Product API in April of 2014.

The first goal was to ensure that our PIM could support a significant number of SKU’s that would doubtlessly come from a professional ERP source or multiple inbound feed sources via automation. That necessitated in our case running creation tests against the Bigcommerce API involving an estimated 150,000 SKU’s. Yes that’s correct… 150,000 SKU’s. That’s more than any one minimum wage product data entry clerk could ever hope to accurately manage manually – via the gorgeous and user friendly Bigcommerce admin console no less – even if they had fifteen lifetimes to do it in.

Automation here was key, and while we assumed the BC API was built for this sort of thing, we needed to run a battery of tests to corroborate the fact that the platform could stand up to our needs for timely and integral operation. Elseways we’d have been shopping around for another commerce platform.

Speed Test

Adding tens or a few hundred products via the API we postulated would predictably take seconds or minutes, but what would happen if we tried to add 150,000 products within the same hour?

Our first attempt in using the Product API did take an unholy amount of time, unfortunately; on order of 3 days to complete, as we were also attempting to add as many as 35 custom product attributes to each product record. Product attributes are things such as color, size, SKU, series, brand, weight, height, condition, etc.

We needed to get the ingestion time down to something more palatable and thus opted to package all of our attributes from our PIM into a single product entity field as a JSON object. Once we did that, we were able to get the creation time for 150,000 SKU’s down to a matter of 4 hours and 36 minutes. That’s not altogether shabby, since we weren’t planning to add 150,000 SKU’s every 15 minutes, or even every day. We just need to do this once when we onboard a new client during the initial load (or ingestion) process before a new store goes live.

Since we predicted that most of our customers would likely only peak at about 30,000 SKU’s or so, we now have the initial ingestion time down to about an hour, which was totally reasonable.

Integrity Test

Coming from working with Magento Enterprise, where we had countless integrity issues due to its poor inner handlings of large product grid indexes, at no point did we encounter any integrity issues with the Bigcommerce API.

An integrity issue is simply a case where we attempt to add or update a product by making a REST call to a function inside the Bigcommerce API, and the function call either:

  • Leaves the data in a corrupt state
  • Deadlocks or hangs the calling process
  • Crashes the server or bungles up the store or database powering the API

No such issues were encountered and thus we were able to move on with our final test.

Important Note: Integrity Tests are meant to give us comfort in a go-forward plan to execute with a given partner. If this test fails, our development team loses faith in the product and has no choice but to move its integration plans elsewhere.

Reset Test

The joy of using a PIM comes into play when you wish to make detailed wholesale changes to product content. At the time of writing, the Bigcommerce API doesn’t have the provision for search and replace functions of product data, modifying attributes with special prefixes, adding watermarks to all product imagery, for example(s). All things a professional PIM could support, but would require a wholesale reset of the products inside Bigcommerce.

We tested a wholesale UPDATE and a wholesale DELETE. In both cases, the experiments produced satisfying enough results, at least for our purposes.

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Why Enterprise Support Matters

Once our PIM had been developed and approved by our client, things were going along quite nicely leading up until the planned launch. We did encounter however some last minute challenges in using the API that was a result of bugs (i.e. faults) in the PHP Bigcommerce Library itself. The library, which was not maintained by Bigcommerce themselves, hadn’t been updated on Github in about a year or so it seemed.

Bigcommerce Support to the Rescue

The BC support experience from an enterprise integrator’s perspective is that of legend, at least, at the Tier 2 level anyhow. Having access to this Tier 2 support representative before a critical launch is essential to any solid project management planning efforts.

Often when we had worked with other commerce platform Tier 1 (or even Tier 2) support teams, they may have had the best of intentions, but they simply lacked the technical capability and perspective to provide cohesive insight that yielded rapid results during a crisis. Turns out, we had just such a crisis at a very sensitive time in our relationship with a newly beloved client. Two days before launch, our PIM publication engine was deadlocking in attempts to publish to the API. This meant, no product on the website. No products predictably would have meant very little sales, if you can imagine the stretch in this analogy.

Anyhow it’s often a frustrating process for system administrators to work with technical support reps, and my experience working with Bigcommerce support was unparalleled in the industry, for the following reasons:

  • The support rep answered the phone quickly, was empathetic, and helpful.
  • The support rep wasted no time in putting me directly in touch with someone more technical, who was himself both pleasant and astute; with a mastery of English that was refreshing. The rep was very patient as I described in painstaking detail the precise symptoms as best we could tell from our diagnostics.
  • As soon as the rep realized he was out of his pay grade, he directed me to one of the engineer’s that was involved in mastering the API itself. Surely, if this individual didn’t know what the issue was, no one likely would.
  • The API engineer provided clear direction and we iterated over the phone on a number of attempts to solve the problem, until the solution was at least sorted out.

If you’re at all interested to find out what the integration issue specifically was (and how we patched the Bigcommerce library on our own) visit our website here. You’ll find a link to download an updated version of the PHP library on our website as well, should you so be inclined to use it.

In all, I found working with the Bigcommerce API to be a first-class experience. It’s well documented, functions with integrity and was speedy enough to handle more product SKU’s than I’d expect we’d have a need for.

What’s more important than that, is having a company and support team dedicated to world-class customer service such as they are. Thank you Bigcommerce!

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Toronto eCommerce Event June 2015 – Recap

Toronto, ON – Canada  // June 18, 2015

On June 16th, 2015, along with our partners; Bigcommerce, Nextopia Software Corporation, and Jackson Wynne Brand Consultants, we hosted a joint-case study presentation and social mixer event.  It was held at the Brassaii, in trendy King West district of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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Photo Credit: Emily Kuske – Nextopia Software

The theme for the evening was: Learn how a SaaS platform performs on the Enterprise stage.  One delegate from each respective partner organization provided a brief overview of its teams involvement in transforming a previously flat online business into an incredible success story.  The group spoke to an attentive audience of; clients, valued partners & local eCommerce enthusiasts alike.

The case study involved one of our beloved mutual clients, a legendary retail brick and mortar music store founded in 1958 in Washington, DC:  Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center.   A single store that had become the largest independently owned retail music establishment in the United States, largely on account of its reputation for exceptional customer service and dedication to helping musicians attain exactly the right equipment for the right price.

With the advent of Internet technology, while the retail store itself enjoyed healthy annual sales, its online channel (www.chucklevins.com) was greatly suffering from a wholesale under-investment in design and technology.  The site was hosted atop an antiquated eCommerce platform and had a poor aesthetic, it performed slowly and was difficult to navigate.  What’s more, low consumer shopping confidence hindered checkout conversions and created (at best) a very poor product look-book experience, contributing very little to in-store sales as well.

Not only did consumers not want to shop online via the previous website, they weren’t much compelled to come into the store on account of it either.

In 2014, Jasper Studios was engaged to provide a cohesive, end to end solution to increase sales conversions and boost consumer shopping confidence.  This endeavour required the help of some of our amazing partners (listed below), whose contributions were essential in the development of a robust enterprise solution for Chuck’s new online store.

 

Bigcommerce Enterprise

After having undergone a full diligence in testing its API for merchant-ability by prototyping and connecting our PIM [product information management] system to it, we elected Bigcommerce as our best-of-breed SaaS platform of choice and it was the backbone to the entire enterprise offering.

The differentiating factors of Bigcommerce for us was; a quality, responsive, technically adept support team, a commitment to an impressive 99.999% of uptime SLA (service level agreement) and a fast and robust product API for enterprise integration purposes.  In short, Bigcommerce was always up, it was responsive, and functioned as designed seamlessly throughout its first critical months of launch (just prior to Black Friday/Cyber Monday, 2014).

Bigcommerce also fulfilled the need for us to connect a legacy ERP system (i.e. Inventory Management and Accounting platform) to our product management tool allowing us to utilize a sophisticated publication engine that powers the automated creation of products to the new ChuckLevins.com storefront.

Jackson Wynne Brand Consultants (www.jacksonwynne.com)

Our strategic design partner of record, Jackson Wynne, rose to the challenge in taking this dynastic, legendary, and time honoured brand for Chuck Levin’s and modernized its identity while paying respectful homage to a very near-and-dear sentiment amongst key stakeholders, many of whom have been there for decades.

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As Chuck’s is an established, family owned organization, and its founder Chuck Levin was a reverend gentleman loved by any and all whom he encountered, coming up with a suitable icon to meet everyone’s acceptance was no trivial feat.

Jackson Wynne is credited not only with producing a gorgeous responsive theme in Bigcommerce and executing a clean and highly usable new online shopping experience, but also with producing related quality print collateral (i.e. business cards, t-shirts, letterhead, stickers. etc) and generating a creative brand guide that provided direction for the Chuck Levin’s internal design team.

Nextopia Software Corporation (www.nextopia.com)

An incredibly talented and passionate Canadian company, Nextopia proudly powers the product grid and site search capability for ChuckLevins.com.  It’s an invaluable tool in our arsenal for bringing world class enterprise solutions to clients.

What makes their service so reliable is a robust, tried-and-true technology platform with an uptime performance record that’s second to none. For enterprise clients, partner up time and performance integrity are essential to creating a reliable solution and keeping customers shopping with confidence.

Nextopia’s advanced faceting and auto complete search capability allows customers to find products quickly and intuitively, which was essential in helping increase sales conversion by a factor of 500% in just a few short months after launch.

Nextopia supplements the built in product faceting and search auto-complete capability of Bigcommerce and is therefore a highly recommended enhancement to the platform.


Ortery Technologies (www.ortery.com)

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As our proud HD and 360° product photography partner, Ortery Technologies has been working with Jasper Studios since 2012 and has supplied equipment to our clients that has been running for years without fail.  In a record case, producing more than 14,000 quality HD product photos and 3D panoramic views on a single piece of equipment.

Ortery provides a range of product photography solutions to suit many needs and its equipment is robust, works effortlessly and is easy to train staff on how to operate and maintain.

Ortery was elected to power photo automation for Chuck Levin’s, bringing rich media and adding excitement to their product catalog.

 

The results speak for themselves.

Having a grid powered by Nextopia with lightning fast keyword searches, backed by Bigcommerce’s solid SaaS commerce platform filled with gorgeous & consistent product imagery transformed the old and under-performing online channel into a thriving new business.  In just three short months after its launch, the new online store realized a 5x increase in conversions and began trending towards a 3x projected annual increase in gross sales.

Our engineering team was able to bring a respectable, enterprise solution to market (not including prototyping time) through Bigcommerce in only 6 short weeks, easily the fastest integration time we’d ever encountered with any other commerce platform.

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With the blending of these amazing partnerships, consumer shopping confidence was effectively restored.  Not only could customers now readily find what they were after, they also now had the confidence to shop online and the new high quality imagery and robust search capability was absolutely critical in helping them make noteable in-store sales as well.

Folks would phone into the store at Chuck Levin’s and comment to sales staff about how they saw a beautiful new Paul Reed Smith electric guitar on the website in full panoramic detail for example, and indicated that they wanted to come into the store to try it out.  Ultimately this increased look-booking through the new website and has now resulted in increased in-store retail sales as well.

The key to our success was the election of amazing partners, and that said, I’d like to publicly acknowledge each of them listed here.  After getting to know many of the executives and account team members from each organization, I can confidently praise them all for having an; amazing corporate culture, an excellent approach and attitude towards customer service, in being graceful and classy and utterly refreshing to work with, despite any challenge encountered and any deadline presented.

Thanks to the event organizers, our partners, clients & all attendees for making this mixer a great success!

We sincerely hope you enjoyed the evening, were inspired by the success of this case study, and we look forward to any feedback about your experience at the event.

We’d love to hear from you!  Cheers!  ^_^

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 Photo Credit: Emily Kuske – Nextopia Software

Integration with Bigcommerce and Nextopia

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Bigcommerce API – PHP Library Code Patch