IBM unveils tool for managing e-catalogs

IBM last week released a new client tool to work with its electronic commerce server software. The tool will help agencies build and manage electronic catalogs.

Called Catalog Architect, the tool makes it easier for agencies to manage and update product information stored in online catalogs, such as price, part number, size and color. The tool is designed to work with IBM's Net.Commerce server software, which agencies can use to sell products and services through an electronic catalog on the Internet.

Catalog Architect addresses one of the major costs associated with e-commerce, said Dave Liederbach, director of e-commerce marketing at IBM. "Customers tell us that 75 percent of resources and money is spent on the content-management side of electronic commerce," he said. "People have a broad range of information on content and services [in their catalogs], and it tends not to be in a well-organised format. Catalog Architect is designed to create a higher level of efficiency and accuracy."

Currently, updating an online catalog - when a product's price or color changes, for example - is a time-consuming, manual process, Liederbach said. Catalog Architect helps speed the data entry process by automatically generating the attributes, such as color, that are associated with a particular product, such as a shirt. "So instead of entering 25 unique products, you only need to enter the attributes, and the [tool] will generate the information," he said.

Catalog Architect also validates the information entered into the catalog based on how products are defined. For example, the tool will notice when a price is missing from the product description. "This tool is designed to ferret those issues out in advance," Liederbach said.

Government agencies should be interested in the product, Liederbach said. "As you look at government, there tends to be a desire to institute better control around the procurement process," he said. "Therefore, in that context, I would expect to see more aggressive use of electronic catalogs," and that use would increase the need for tools that improve the underlying information in the catalogs.

Because most enterprise e-commerce systems use catalogs to present goods and services, "management of that presentation is a central issue for doing business on the Web," said David Baltaxe, an analyst with Current Analysis, Sterling, Virginia. "Any streamlining of those operations should be received with open arms by large merchants, particularly those that need to make numerous changes" to their catalogs. Catalog Architect also should help create a standard process for managing data stored in a catalog - a process that usually is shared among several people, Baltaxe added.

"With the new goals of government to get their information in an easily accessible format on the Web, there will be lots of opportunities" for agencies to use the tool, said Ed Shields, the program manager for Internet solutions at Silver Spring, Maryland-based Information Systems & Services, a systems integrator with many government customers and a Catalog Architect beta tester.

Information Systems & Services is using the tool to manage online catalog sites for customers, which currently include only commercial organizations. "The real benefit is when you get into larger sites when there are tens of thousands of items; [Catalog Architect] can be helpful in managing that data," Shields said.

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