AD39s distributors are seeking ecommerce solutions to compete with national chains as well as giant online retailers such as Amazon which opened a huge fulfillment center in Tracy Calif in January Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

AD's distributors are seeking e-commerce solutions to compete with national chains, as well as giant online retailers such as Amazon, which opened a huge fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif., in January.

Affiliated Distributors Partners with Unilog to Boost Members’ E-commerce Capabilities

Distributor buying and marketing group Affiliated Distributors (AD), Wayne, Pa., announced a major effort to boost its member companies’ abilities to compete online with large national chains by developing product data sets, master electronic catalogs and other e-content services. The move brings together a variety of e-commerce and data efforts among AD’s seven industry verticals and, through a new partnership with data services provider Unilog, will create a comprehensive product and marketing data content management solution for AD member distributors.

The electrical market channel has a significant head start compared with other industries, having sought solutions to lower the cost and bother involved with obtaining and maintaining consistent product data for over 15 years through the Industry Data Exchange Association (IDEA), Arlington, Va., which is jointly owned by electrical distributor and manufacturer associations, the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) and will provide raw electrical product data. After a major push on data quality and completeness over the past year, IDEA’s Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) now has over 1.4 million fully attributed stock-keeping units (SKUs) in the IDW, up from just 20,000 a year ago. But they’re all electrical products.

Many electrical distributors are pursuing growth by expanding their product scope into markets outside electrical, and the IDW can’t provide those data streams. The lack of anything like IDEA in industrial supplies, heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), pipe valves and fittings (PVF), building supplies and the other verticals in which AD operates created the opportunity to provide these services across its industries.

Even within the electrical market, IDEA is constrained by its contracts from making changes of any kind to the data in the IDW. Enhancing that data with added functions such as cross-referencing still poses a significant burden on distributors that don’t have the scale of a national chain but want to offer equally robust platforms for e-commerce. That’s where AD sees its opportunity. It can take that raw data and make it more useful for distributors’ e-commerce storefronts and spread the cost across its membership.

The electrical industry’s 15-year effort to build the IDW provides some experience in just how difficult an undertaking it is to obtain and organize comprehensive product data for an industry.

“This is a labor intensive and critical project,” said Ed Crawford, president of AD’s Electrical Division, in an interview with Electrical Marketing. “If it were easy it would already have been done. National chains have the scale to hire large groups to handle the data, whereas even the largest AD members are hard-pressed to justify more than a handful of people to do it.”

IDEA issued a statement of support for the AD program. The association’s executive vice president, Mike Wentz, told EM that AD’s efforts can add significant value for distributors by building on IDW data. “The starting point is IDW content, but you may want to develop associated-item lists or you may decide to develop cross-reference lists or rewrite the product description because in a catalog you want there to be an overall style that is consistent. IDEA makes standards and the manufacturers cooperate with the standards, but we aren’t able and would never modify manufacturer content.”

Wentz sees in the marketing groups a kind of leverage IDEA hasn’t had in its efforts to persuade manufacturers to provide the complete data needed to support e-commerce. “We (IDEA) don’t buy things, so we don’t have the buyer’s leverage. Marketing groups have incredible leverage because if a manufacturer doesn’t perform on product shipments, they may drop that manufacturer. To me it’s logical that this will extend to content.”

The program includes support for online storefronts built on Unilog’s CIMM2 platform, but AD isn’t looking for a consistent look and feel that would boost the group brand, Crawford said. “The strength of our independent distributor members is in that local look and feel,” he said. “We’re here to support the brands of the individual distributors. I don’t want them to look like each other.”

“We have full-time staff members working inside AD specifically to support e-commerce for our members, we have active engagements with business partners and consultants, and we are making direct investments alongside our AD members for the express purpose of helping the AD independents compete and win on the Internet,” Bill Weisberg, AD chairman and CEO, said in a press release. “This includes eContent production, paid search demand generation and the purchase of licenses and technology. Our model is member-defined because we believe that distributors understand better than anyone how products should be organized and what pieces of data are the most important about the products.”

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