Ray Curry figured there just had to be a better way.
The information director for the Memphis, Tenn.-based Hunter Fan Co. knew that errors in product information, such as price or product number, cost time and money. So when he heard that big-time retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Lowe's Home Centers Inc. were using a supply chain registry that could reduce, maybe even eliminate, problematic data, he thought it was time to jump on board.
Curry's hunch was right on.
In an attempt to improve supply chain inefficiencies, major retailers are pushing their suppliers to use UCCnet's GlobalRegistry, an Internet-based supply chain management system. Hunter Fan, a ceiling fan manufacturer, is now among thousands of companies subscribing to UCCnet's data synchronization service.
UCCnet is a nonprofit organization, formed by Uniform Code Council Inc., to oversee standardization and synchronization of product data in the supply chain.
Bad data, such as incorrect prices and product identification numbers, have plagued the industry, costing retailers and their suppliers millions of dollars, said Kosin Huang, an analyst with the Boston-based Yankee Group.
"There are so many versions of product data from one company to another and different ways of saying the same thing that it's causing problems between trading partners," she said. "Now the retailers are saying, 'We're going to try to fix this.' "
UCCnet GlobalRegistry is a registry service for centralizing product information. Manufacturers publish their product information and subsequent changes to GlobalRegistry, and retailers and suppliers can subscribe to get the information, thereby keeping trading data in sync. The benefits of data synchronization translate into savings for both the retailers and the suppliers, experts say.
Not quite ready for prime time
Despite the obvious benefits, UCCnet users are plagued by confusion, and frustration is starting to set in for many.
Grady Abernathy, an IT professional with a large apparel company, said the biggest problem with UCCnet is that it's difficult to get a straight answer from any of the providers who say they can help get products into the GlobalRegistry.
"Until you put your money up," Abernathy said, "you can't find out anything -- I mean absolutely nothing," either from major retailers who demand compliance but aren't ready themselves, or from vendors who are continually updating their UCCnet-oriented products, or from UCCnet itself. "And once you do 'get answers,' there's not a whole lot anyone is agreeing on."
Probably the first point of contention among those trying to get on board is how to get their product information into the GlobalRegistry. Despite the growing number of vendor products -- which allow businesses to input their data in a variety of ways, including through spreadsheets and through hosted services -- businesses still must gather all their product information on the back end and get it into their ERP systems.
UCCnet's success depends on catalogs, EAI (enterprise application integration), AS2 (a specification for Electronic Data Interchange) and message translation components, Huang said. As a result, there has been an onslaught of vendors offering products that enable suppliers to hook their ERP systems into the online repository. Among them are major ERP vendors such as J.D. Edwards & Co., PeopleSoft Inc. and SAP AG. Other players include Lansa Inc., an AS/400 vendor that was one of the first to offer a solution specifically for the iSeries platform. Inovis Inc., TrailBlazer Systems Inc. and Extol International Inc. are among numerous others that have UCCnet-supported offerings.
"Right now, businesses are trying to figure out which software they should buy," Huang said. The answer depends on a number of variables, including the company's size, the number of product items it has, and the system it's currently running.
Diane Muller, an IT manager at Binghamton, N.Y.-based Crowley Foods LLC, said that updating those systems is a major obstacle because UCCnet keeps "evolving." Retailers are pushing people to get on board, but suppliers are taking a wait-and-see approach because changes are happening so quickly.
"It's a vicious cycle," she said. "Everyone believes this is the right way to go -- having global standards for other forms of electronic commerce -- it's just that getting there is hard."
New way of doing business
And while businesses are trying to determine which solutions to buy in to, they have to "clean up" their data, Huang said.
Before data can be "published" in the registry, it has to be accurate and "in sync." And depending on where data is located, the number of items SKUd and the integrity of the data to begin with, the process could take months, Huang said.
Although there are a plethora of vendors offering UCCnet tools now, that wasn't the case a year ago, Huang said. Many vendors, particularly the ERP vendors, were late to the gate, and some suppliers wonder whether vendors should have been more on the ball.
Curry said that, because Hunter Fan was using an ERP system, a UCCnet tool from an ERP vendor would have been a logical choice. But, at the time, ERP vendors offered nothing. Instead, Curry found a solution with Lansa.
"We are amazed at the number of companies now calling us with their 'solution for UCCnet' that they are just putting in place," he said. "These are huge companies in B2B, ERP and distribution software. Where were they six to nine months ago? All of a sudden everyone 'has a solution' or a provider partner."
No, you go first
Suppliers are also under a lot of pressure from retailers to be UCCnet-compliant. Many of them have cut-off dates of Jan. 1.
"The retailers see the benefits, and they're the ones pushing the hardest," said Al Grega, director of business development for Lansa, which is based in Chicago.
Grega said that suppliers that aren't ready are not necessarily procrastinating. It's more likely that they just underestimated the amount of work that needs to be done.
"They don't realize how much is actually involved in getting this done," he said. "A lot of people think this is just like EDI; then they realize this is a new way of describing product information. The way you identify your brands is very important. There is a lot of rethinking that has to take place."
Ironically, there are a number of suppliers who are ready and waiting on the retailers -- who are not.
There has been a lot of confusion surrounding the compliance dates put out there by retailers, Huang said.
"The requirements are different for all the suppliers," she said. "Everybody needs to keep in mind they're just a push go. Even retailers are not ready. Everybody is still scrambling to do this. The dates are really just a moving target."
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