E-commerce product systems. Not cool.

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Snapshot : e-Commerce might sound cool from the outside, but some of the jobs to be done are very far from cool. In this quick article, we look at examples of e-commerce product systems from Amazon, Google and WooCommerce and marvel at the attention to detail and patience required to do this vital but very uncool part of e-Commerce. 

From the outside, e-Commerce looks and sounds kinda cool, right? 

It has that “e” floating there for a start. 

Hey, it’s new and online. And online’s cool. It’s “e”. It’s not the same old, same old.

You’ve heard people say that, right? 

And then. it’s “commerce”. Oooh. 

Not “sales”. Because sales isn’t cool, is it? When people say they work in “sales”, what do you think? 

The sales rep in their rep-mobile car calling on ten customers a day. Or the call centre worker busting a gut to hit their sales target every day. Maybe, it’s the guy behind the counter in Woolies, or the woman on the make-up counter at Myers, on their feet all day trying to keep customers happy.

No, working in “sales” is not a fun gig at all. It’s tough. It’s thankless. And it’s a grind and a hustle every day. 

So surely, e-Commerce gets you away from all that stuff, right? It’s cool.

E-Commerce is not cool

But when you work inside e-Commerce, you soon realise that all of that tough, unglamorous and grinding part of “sales”, it’s still there. Just it comes at you in a different way.

And nowhere is that more clear than when it comes to e-Commerce product systems.

Because here’s the thing.

People outside e-Commerce get excited about the “big” numbers. We recently saw that e-Commerce sales numbers in Australia were running at 50 per cent year on year.

There’s not many traditional businesses growing at 50 per cent year on year. 

But break it down. Those “big” numbers are an accumulation of “small” individual unit sales. 

And every one of those individual unit sales that make up the total don’t just happen. Every product that’s sold online needs to appear on e-Commerce product systems, so it can be “sold”.

And getting products on to these systems is the e-Commerce equivalent of those shitty, low paid, low thanks traditional “sales” jobs we mentioned above.  It’s online shelf stacking. 

Because in our experience, most e-Commerce product systems run on spreadsheets. Or annoying detailed and finicky software platforms that require a Rainman level of attention to detail and the patience of a Saint to endure. 

Even the big high tech guys like Amazon and Google haven’t yet found a way to make e-Commerce product systems a joy rather than a chore to work with. 

Amazon Item Template

Amazon Item Template screengrab

So, when you sell through Amazon for example, you’ve probably already demonstrated some of the Rainman detail / Saint patience levels needed to work in e-Commerce. Because they do not make it easy to work with them.

Their negotiating stance starts with “we’re big and successful, accept our terms or f*ck off”. We’re simplifying and paraphrasing, obviously, but they are tough negotiators. 

And then you get their Amazon Item Template.

For every product you want to list on Amazon, you need to complete this beast of a spreadsheet in a way that Amazon are happy with.

It has 37 different elements on it.

37.

For every single sku, that you want to sell on Amazon, here’s a shortened version of the information you need to provide.  

Vendor codes, brand names, category, GST status, Barcodes, Weights, packaging details, product descriptions, price breakdowns, features, shelf-life, temperature status, country of origin, ingredients, dimensions and fragile or dangerous transportation warnings. 

Made it through that list? Well done, for not losing interest half-way through. 

So, while the headlines about Amazon may sound “cool”, the reality of selling through Amazon is some poor low-level grunt in sales or marketing has to sit with this damn spreadsheet. And compile it line by line just to get stuff to appear on Amazon.

Not cool

Google Merchandise Sheet

Google Merchant Centre Screengrab

Ah well, maybe Amazon is just a one-off?  Surely, someone like Google does it better? Their search engine interface is the world’s simplest and best design user interface. So surely, they’ve come up with e-Commerce product management systems that are better.

Well, yes, kind of.

But also, no. 

Though Google aren’t strictly an e-Commerce store, they do essentially “sell” products by letting you advertise on Google Shopping. And to advertise on Google Shopping, you need to set yourself up on the Google Merchant Centre.

To be fair, when you first visit the Merchant Centre, you find a fairly user friendly set up to link your online store to Google Shopping Ads. And to track how your ads perform.

But then, you go to list your products and wait a minute, what’s this?

A spreadsheet on Google Docs that becomes an automated feed list into your Google Merchant Centre account.

And this one has 44 fields to fill in for every item.

44.

Bugger.

Your SKU Id, product name, product description, links to the product listing in your store and the product image, Condition of the product (new, used, refurbished), price, availability, barcodes, brand name, category, packaging details, age group, gender, size, colour, material, patten, tax, delivery charges, dimensions, price and a few more.

So, to list your product on a Google Ad, you need to fill out these details.

One line for every single product you sell.

Not cool.

What if you run your own online store?

WooCommerce product page screen grab product descriptor

So, what if you run your own online store?

Surely, there’s an easier way to manage product information than all those spreadsheets if you do it yourself?

Well, the good news is you don’t have to use spreadsheets when you use a Shopify, Magento or WooCommerce option to run your own online store. 

But actually, you might want to. Because the issue isn’t the spreadsheets really.

And that’s the bad news.

It’s the amount of information that you need to attach to each product to make it e-Commerce “ready” for sale.  

We run WooCommerce on our shop because we like the integration between WordPress publishing and WooCommerce. And because when you “list” a product in your online store, you are essentially “publishing” a page about that specific product.

You have all the options you have when you publish a page.

WooCommerce product page - SEO section

You can SEO optimise it with titles, metadata and categories and tags. Want to write your own product descriptions with links to relevant content? Easy.

You choose the images you want, the layouts, the copy, the links, the prices, it’s all under your control.  

But to do that for every product you want to sell. That’s a lot of work. 

And when you’ve listed your first 10, 20, 100 products, that’s when you realise that e-Commerce is definitely not cool. 

Is there a better way?

Well, there are businesses we’ve worked with like SkuVantage and GS1 / Smart Media who partly help.

And how they partly help is they standardise your e-Commerce product systems so you have one master copy sheet, that all the retailers can pull from. So, if you make a change in your product, you only change it in the master sheet, rather than have to go to all your retailers and change it one by one. 

But that still leaves someone with the very uncool job of setting it all up in the first place, and keeping track of the master data. 

And having had to do that in the past, we can definitely share that that’s not a cool job. If you find someone to do that for you and who actually enjoys it, hold on to that person for dear life. 

Because the first rule of e-Commerce is to make sure your product is available to buy. And unless someone manages your e-Commerce product systems properly, you won’t even get to that first step on the e-Commerce journey.

Photo credit : Bored in front of computer : Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

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