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Software // Enterprise Applications
06:25 PM

In Sync

Businesses are depending on UCCnet's standards to improve collaboration--and they're almost there

It has taken several years, with plenty of setbacks and confusion along the way, but an ambitious data-collaboration effort among the makers and sellers of consumer goods is finally showing signs of success.

UCCnet, a nonprofit division of the Uniform Code Council standards organization, was formed five years ago to provide a global online registry of product information that participants provide using the group's standards. In the past year, the number of manufacturers and retailers that have joined UCCnet has jumped from 70 to 600, ranging from early adopters such as Procter & Gamble Co. to new converts such as Home Depot Inc. and Kroger Co.

Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is a powerful force behind UCCnet. The retailer has asked that all its suppliers--tens of thousands of companies--comply with UCCnet by year's end. "We're a huge advocate of data synchronization using UCCnet," Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman said at the Retail Systems conference last week. Having the largest retailers and manufacturers behind the effort is likely to convince laggards they need to move quickly. "We're achieving a momentum in the tech industry that's relatively uncommon," says Glenn DuBois, UCCnet's chief operating officer.

The cooperation stems from UCCnet's potential to help solve one of the retail industry's most-expensive problems: inaccurate and inconsistent product descriptions, which drive up supply-chain costs, complicate buying and selling transactions, and impede new-product launches. Campbell Soup Co. sees UCCnet as so essential to retailer relationships that it didn't take the time to do a complex return-on-investment calculation. "It's the only project in my 14-year career at Campbell where we didn't need an ROI," says Mark Engle, director of IT. "What we needed was a return on the relationship."

Some 80 IT vendors have become UCCnet partners. About half of them, including Microsoft and IBM, have become certified by UCCnet in areas such as data retrieval and cleansing; dynamic online catalogs based on the standards; integration of legacy systems that hold the data with catalogs and other front-end systems; and linking companies with the UCCnet global registry and online trading exchanges such as GlobalNetXchange, Transora, and the WorldWide Retail Exchange.

Steve David, CIO at Procter & Gamble. Photo by Sacha Lecca.

Getting data clean is important because bad data can get passed along to trading partners, Procter & Gamble CIO David says.
Still, participating in UCCnet isn't easy. Admission to the global registry requires that consumer-goods companies clean up the data, and they must move to meet UCCnet's published standards for describing hundreds of thousands of products. "The benefits of getting your data clean are incredibly important," P&G CIO Steve David says. "There's so much bad information that's inside a company that's passed on to trading partners."

During its data-cleansing process last year, P&G found thousands of redundancies in product-description information, as well as data on products it doesn't sell anymore. Cleaning up data in one product-image database alone saved $1 million in fees related to maintaining those images, David says.

That's just the beginning. A handful of early adopters have already cleaned and standardized their data and are now syncing it with retail partners through services provided by UCCnet and online trading platforms. P&G has moved beyond the pilot stage and is forging data-sync partnerships with customers such as Wal-Mart and food and retail conglomerate Ahold USA. Retailer returns and refusals cost P&G nearly $50 million a year, David says. He expects about half of those costs to disappear over the next few years because of improved communications about product information. Furthermore, data that's been standardized and synchronized brings trading partners closer to the goal of collaborative planning, forecasting, and replenishment (known in the industry as CPFR), as well as to adoption of emerging technologies such as radio-frequency identification tagging.

Only the early adopters have passed through the data-cleansing stage, while hundreds more are just starting the process. Campbell's Engle says manufacturers will be surprised at how much time it takes to clean up data--a job the company started in October and which is now about 90% finished. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done on the manufacturers' side and the retailers' side," he says, including retailers' ability to accept data updates.

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