It's a scenario played out in parts stores across the country: A customer calls his preferred vendor looking for a specific part to complete a job. Let's say this time it's an exhaust pipe for a 2001 Camaro 3.8L.
As the customer provides the correct information, the parts pro on the other end of the phone types it into the e-catalog. He hits the "Enter" key, and - nothing. No record found. Apparently, there's no aftermarket part for that particular application. It must be one of those all-too common "dealer only" parts, right?
What neither the counterman nor the service writer knew at the time was that the Camaro part was indeed available from that store's primary exhaust supplier; it had just not yet made it into the e-cat. If the counterman had the time to dig a little (and in many cases he doesn't), he could have found it right in his Gabriel paper catalog.
But it ends up as a lost sale, with the counter professional telling the customer that it must be a 'dealer only' part. Sorry.
But the customer is not nearly as sorry as that parts store will be. After hanging up the phone, the service writer has no choice but to call his local GM dealer, who says while he may not have the part on the shelf right now, he can have it to the repair shop by tomorrow.
If the dealership's parts professional is any good, he'll go on to explain to the service writer while he's got him on the phone all about his dealership wholesale program - terms, delivery and preferred wholesale pricing. He may even win over this new customer for other lines as well. The net result (at least) is a lost sale. At the most, it's a lost customer.
BILLIONS OF DOLLARS AT STAKE
How big of a problem is this scenario? At the 2003 E-Cat Conference, a representative from ArvinMeritor estimated that in just eight months, situations just like the one described cost Gabriel Ride Control some $33 million - and that's just one line. When you take that estimate and spread it across the entire industry, you get a number well into the many billions of dollars.
Some of the time, these are bona-fide new parts, but it has been estimated that roughly half of all late-model 'new' parts are carryovers - parts that fit multiple model years. Certainly, the counterman can't guess which parts are carryovers, so the fact a specific part is indeed a carryover is not known until the e-cat has been updated.
At the heart of this is the speed at which these parts - both new and carryover numbers as well as errors - are updated within e-cat systems. Previously (and currently in some instances) it was not uncommon for part updates to take six to nine months to get from the manufacturer to the e-cat provider, and finally to the counter. Part of the problem revolves around the multiple formats manufacturers must send to their various e-cat providers such as Wrenchead, AutoZone, NAPA, Activant (formerly CCI/Triad) and others. Distributors, e-cat providers and manufactures know all about the problem, which is being addressed through something called ACES - AAIA Catalog Enhanced Standards.
The ACES project is headed up by Scott Luckett, vice president of technology for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). ACES allows aftermarket suppliers to publish application catalog data in a single electronic format for distribution to the various e-cat providers. The aim of ACES is simple: through a single data standard, manufacturers won't have to send their part update data in multiple formats to multiple e-cat providers. For example, prior to the advent of the standards in 1997 (an "enhanced" version of the standard debuted in 2003), manufacturers had to send their parts data in one format to NAPA, another format to Activant and yet another format to ProfitPro. This process consumed money, resources and most of all - time.
Currently, 280 trading partners, including most major manufactures and all major e-cat providers, can provide or accept data in the ACES format. The major e-cat providers that currently accept data in this format include Activant, Wrenchead, Advance Auto Parts, The Pep Boys and others.
However, a standard really isn't standard until it has universal usage, which so far ACES does not enjoy.
"Not everyone is using the standard, and that's mostly due to legacy systems," said Luckett, who went on to explain that some pre-existing data bases, computer programs and methods have been used for so long that changing to something new can be a difficult and costly endeavor.
According to Steve Bieszczat, Activant vice president of information services, only four percent of suppliers are sending their cataloging data to Activant in the ACES format.
"However, manufacturers are certainly using (ACES) more and we expect in about a year, it could be 25 to 30 percent," said Bieszczat.
Bieszczat said a standard such as ACES is an important move for the industry, but it has still not quite fixed the problem of part update delays - even today, delays of several months are not uncommon. That means for as long as nine months, even as a part is available in the system, it cannot be sold because those at the counter don't know about it. Even once the ACES standard gains wide acceptance, it is still up to the individual catalog providers to turn the information around quickly. In other words, even standardized catalog data provided by the manufacturer can get bogged down in the data, interchange, buyer's guides and imaging processes.
"One way to get data turned around is to embrace the ACES standard, which most of the industry has done," said Wrenchead President Brian Murphy.
"The ACES standard will ultimately assist in more complete and accurate (catalog) data," he said. "A standard reduces cost, improves timeliness and improves quality. However, an industry standard itself does not ensure timeliness or error reduction." According to Murphy, it's up to each catalog provider, through its own internal technology and processes, to reduce errors and turn the data around more quickly to get to the counter as fast as possible. A standard will help, but it's not the complete answer.
"The catalog vendors are the ones producing the data," said Murphy. "If it takes a catalog vendor nine months to process a file from a manufacturer and get it into the e-catalog, a standard isn't necessarily going to fix that. The catalog vendors themselves set those timetables. They must build quality into the process, and that will ultimately reduce errors and shorten the time it takes to get parts information from the manufacturer and onto the parts counter," he said.
Activant's and Wrenchead's job is to get the data out to the market as quickly as possible, but the time it takes to do that also depends heavily on the manufacturers that supply the data. Bieszczat said Activant's suppliers are equally divided into three camps: About a third of suppliers send data in clean, error-free formats. The second group's files require some minor repairing, and the third sends files that require major repair/reformatting or rekeying. Not surprisingly, those manufacturers in that first group get their cataloging data out to the market much quicker than those in the last group.
For example, companies that continue to send their data in a paper format will have a slower data turnaround than those that send in clean, error-free files. Activant, for example, still gets paper catalogs from some manufacturers that must be manually keyed in - a long and labor-intensive process that adds to the delay. According to Bieszczat, about a fifth of all suppliers send catalog information this way.
"A good, organized format with clean data inside of it goes much quicker (through the cataloging process) than dirty data," he said.
Catalogers like Activant and Wrenchead work with manufacturers to get their data clean and correct, but the best scenario, one that guarantees the quickest cataloging, is when manufacturers send their data error free from the beginning of the process. The less "back and forth" between the cataloger and the manufacturer that happens to clear up errors or formatting problems, the quicker the data will hit the counter.
SPEED TO MARKET
Both Wrenchead and Activant understand that delays cost the market money, and both are moving toward faster data turnaround. Wrenchead met its goal in 2004 to get data into the catalog in no more than 90 days.
"We're currently well below that number," said Murphy. "In 2005, we expect to cut that number in half, down to between 30 and 45 days."
Activant said its catalog data can be turned around in as little as 30 days.
"If we get good, clean data, we can get it out to the market in 30 to 45 days," said Bieszczat. "Typically, it will be 60 to 90 days, and if there is a particularly difficult to manage file, it can take 120 days."
In an ideal world, immediate, real-time updates would be the best scenario. Both Activant and Wrenchead believe that daily catalog updates are currently constrained by the existence of legacy systems and slow or nonexistent internet connections at the store level. It will take time for the technological infrastructure to upgrade to the point at which electronically updated catalogs are feasible on an industry-wide basis.
Moving forward, Bieszczat believes two things must happen if catalogers are to distribute catalog data electronically: manufacturers must take the preparation of electronic catalog data as seriously as they take the preparation of their paper catalog data and warehouses need to advance their own technology to be able to deal with catalog data in a more real time manner.
In the end, the partnership between manufacturer and cataloger is what ultimately determines the speed and accuracy of cataloging. Standardized of data is but one key to the ever-evolving process of getting sales and cataloging information from the manufacture to the counter.
After all, you can't sell what you can't find.