IBM bundles key WebSphere products for retailers

IBM this week announced more integrated versions of its e-commerce, portal and product information management (PIM) software, designed to make it easier for retailers and manufacturers to tie together product, pricing and promotional information across business systems.

WebSphere Product Center 5.2, available now, ships with out-of-the-box connections to WebSphere Commerce and WebSphere Portal, lessening the need for companies to use professional services to make the products interoperate.

IBM gained its PIM software a year ago through the acquisition of Trigo Technologies. PIM technology handles the collection, management and dissemination of product information such as item descriptions, images, packaging specifications and prices. PIM initiatives are on the rise as companies look to reduce the expense of data quality errors that can lead to invoicing problems, shipment discrepancies and out-of-stock conditions.

With 220,000 items to keep track of, Corporate Express uses PIM technology to expedite the process of creating and updating frequently changing item catalogs for its business customers. The company, which sells office and computer products, plans to upgrade to the latest version of WebSphere Product Center.

"It doesn't take too many incomplete descriptions or bad units of measure to throw our world into chaos when customers don't understand their bill or get a product they weren't expecting -- such as a pallet of something instead of a little box," says Chuck Coleman, director of product support systems at Corporate Express. "It's hard to hide a pallet of paper clips."

Deploying portal software in tandem with PIM technology provides a way to make product information widely and securely available. WebSphere Portal handles the capture and display of product information that's stored in a PIM repository. With the portal's self-service capabilities, suppliers can update item information on their own, or customers can view detailed product information from an in-store kiosk, for example.

Giving suppliers tools to manage new and changing information about their own products via a portal is a good idea, Coleman says. Corporate Express doesn't have immediate plans to deploy a portal, but can see the value in allowing suppliers to feed their own updated item information into the retailer's system. "To have them enter it into my system with appropriate units of measure, and with all kinds of checks to ensure that we're getting a good quality feed, is a lot better than somebody just building an ASCII file and throwing it over the fence to me," Coleman says.

Combining WebSphere Product Center and WebSphere Commerce can help streamline new product introductions and merchandising campaigns that impact store, catalog and Web operations, IBM says. Web merchandisers can preview product assortment and pricing changes specific to a sales event, such as price discounts and new images, on an online storefront before going live with changes.

Also new to WebSphere Product Center 5.2 are hooks to IBM's radio frequency identification (RFID) products, WebSphere RFID Premises Server and WebSphere RFID Device Infrastructure. IBM's PIM software can be combined with its RFID middleware to merge the supply-chain data that RFID devices collect from remote locations with enterprise product data. By aggregating internal and external product information, retailers and suppliers can see how products are moving from manufacturing facilities through a retailer's supply chain and onto store shelves.

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