IWDC’s decision to stand up a Product Information Management (PIM) system was accelerated by the pandemic. Our PIM exists to supply product content supporting our co-op members’ on-line digital strategies. Our members, who are gas and welding distributors, are seeing the need to provide a good on-line B2B shopping experience to their existing customers. This is easier said than done. It requires connectivity between an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and a robust e-store that contains well organized and enriched product content, supported by a PIM. A marathon, not a sprint.

Source: IWDC

Every industry globally felt the shift towards a more virtual business environment. Zoom platforms and the like boomed. B2C e-commerce exploded. Traditional in-person sales and product delivery processes had to be adjusted or suspended to accommodate social distancing. Some businesses closed and many of those that remained open, restricted outside visitors. While impact was acute across retail consumer walk-in businesses, in our gases and welding arena, business carried on. Demand certainly dropped at end of first quarter (Q1) 2020, but it gradually recovered and has accelerated for most of 2021.  Products still needed to be fabricated and facilities and general infrastructure still required repair and maintenance.  

What changed or perhaps better said, what was exposed was the ability for B2B commerce to exist and in some cases flourish despite the pandemic’s impact on traditional processes. In a sense, business leaders, buyers and supply chain professionals became more comfortable letting their acceptance of B2C e-commerce experiences creep into our B2B world. The generational shift towards younger more technology receptive professionals started a fire and the pandemic poured on more fuel and oxygen.

Helping our members address the shift towards e-commerce is not our singular motivation. While it is critically important in the short and mid-term, our view is also on the long game. It is no secret that our industry is disjointed as it relates to information flow and transactional processing. There are numerous inefficiencies between manufacturers, distributors and end users. Computers do not talk to each other very easily. Many patches, manual processes and opportunity for errors and waste exists.

A PIM, in the long-term, can be very helpful in mitigating these chronic issues. It requires structure, product data governance and because it effectively establishes uniform SKU level part numbers, it can serve to help transactional data flow. In other industrial verticals, selling and buying marketplaces are evolving fueled by technology and in some cases PIM systems. Can those developments be translated to our vertical? Maybe, but it is too early to know. A co-op interfaces with both distributors (our member owners) and manufacturers (our vendor partners) so we need play a part in figuring this out.

Back to the present. We want to share some progress since our last update in May of 2021.

First of all, our product content production pace has been deliberate due our decision to go after quality, not quantity. Our QC review process, data quality enhancement and enrichment efforts will in the long run, set our Members apart in the e-commerce arena.  

In June we kicked off our PIM Product / Vendor Steering Committee assembled from members participating in the PIM. This committee establishes prioritization of product content gathering from IWDC approved and non-approved vendors. From their input we significantly increased our SKU count by shifting to a two-pronged approach:

  • Collecting and posting ‘as is’ base level SKU data from manufacturers who provide reasonably good data for e-commerce use
  • Where necessary enhancing (fully enriching) SKUs

As priorities evolve, we can go back then and further enrich posted SKUs as needed. As of our October 2021 Owners’ Meeting, we hit our goal of posting ~50,000 SKUs and we have more going through our QC review process to be posted soon.

We also added to our technical reviewer resource pool by recruiting industry veterans with extensive product knowledge to help properly categorize and enrich data content as needed.  More reviewers will be added in early 2022. We completed gas taxonomy and attribution for both pure gases and mixed gases. We started in the beginning with part numbers. So many welding companies make their own part numbers, and because of that we knew we had to come up with a part numbering system that was easy to understand and to map to.

Once the part numbers were completed, we took on enriching pure gases as they are the most frequently sold gases. We tackled all of the atmospheric gases like oxygen, nitrogen and argon and process gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and helium and then moved on to flammable gases such as acetylene and propane. Our data included compressed and liquid’s and covered all manners of sizes of cylinders.

We then moved onto industrial mixed gases which contain many different components and cover a wide range of welding and food applications. We included gas ratios, industry segments and intended uses to make it easier for end users to know they had the right gas for the right application.

Our next segment will involve specialty gases in both pure and mixed forms. We purposely left this to the end as it is one of the more complex portions of our PIM’s gas segment and it was important for us to get this right!

When we complete this segment in 2022, we will have an offering that will not only give our members’ end use customers concise information, it will also be something members can leverage in their digital marketing programs. So many companies use analytics to drive people to their websites and spend a great deal of money doing so. Using structured robust PIM data and associated search engine optimized key words will help drive end user prospective customers to members’ websites, without breaking the bank with pay for click advertising.

Currently approximately two-thirds of our original group of members who funded the project are consuming data and every month that percentage increases. As we anticipated, our members are at different stages of their digital strategy deployment so this is truly a journey.