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The Problem with Managing Product Listings for Apparel Brands

22 September 2019

By Geoff Ainsworth

Geoff is the Director of Technology at Upp. He contributes posts on the present and future of retail technology.

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Creating product listings for online channels like Google Shopping, Amazon or your own website can sometimes be misunderstood as a simple task. Unfortunately, the practical reality is far more complicated. The problem isn’t creating a listing, it is about creating listings that are optimised for every platform, and then managing all of those listings in a way that makes sense — knowing what information to include, which products to focus on, and how best to promote them.

Online sales still have a way to go before outdoing traditional brick and mortar shops, only accounting for 17.5% of UK retail sales in 2018. However, survey results now show that 51% of UK consumers prefer to shop online and 87% of shoppers now start their product search online, indicating that the tipping point for online sales to become a primary channel for even established retailers may come sooner than expected.

Online fashion retail continues to play a central role in the growth of ecommerce. Having grown at a compound annual rate of 10.6% since 2017, the online fashion and apparel industry is predicted to exceed £555 billion by 2022.

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However, to be relevant online, retailers can no longer simply rely on their own website. Only 13% of UK online shoppers have an exact product in mind when they visit an ecommerce website. Two-thirds like to browse online and nearly half state that they are more likely to make impulse purchases online compared to in-store. To capture these markets, retailers need to be present across the many online marketplaces with product listings that are easy to find and rank well in search.

This necessity to be active on the many online marketplaces is central to the difficulty of controlling, creating and maintaining online product listings. Capturing all of the vital customer information that comes from sales on these platforms is even harder.

Here is our guide to the three main problems with managing product listing online for apparel brands and fashion retailers, and the fixes you can implement to solve your product listing woes.          

Problem 1: Knowledge

There are hundreds of product data fields to fill, some are essential, some are nice-to-have, and some are not that important. They also change names for different channels, and the importance of different fields changes per channel too. Teams doing the manual data work don’t always know the right things to emphasise or the best values to describe their products in a search-optimised way.

For example, how should you describe the size and fit of an article of clothing? ‘Slim Fit’ is a common descriptor used to describe clothing that fits close to the body. But 'skinny fit' and even ‘tapered fit’ are also common. Which is best? If you are listing a clothing article on your own website, the decision is up to you. But, if you are listing on a third-party platform, you need to know how they list their products so that your product will fit accurately into their search fields. Some platforms, like Google Shopping, don’t provide a ‘fit’ attribute at all, and this information needs to be included within the size fields in order to be displayed to customers.

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The fix: delegating expertise. eCommerce teams need to assign individuals to each channel platform, creating centres of expertise that understand the best practices for every individual channel. These people can then give instructions to teams on what to prioritise and how to operate on each channel for different products. This process can then be aided by astute technology investments — we'll come back to this.

Problem 2: Time and resource

There are hundreds of fields to fill and often thousands of SKUs to get onto channels as quickly as possible. Time to market is very important for many fashion and apparel brands. The required data work is manual, usually done in spreadsheets. Getting a single product from raw data (usually from an ERP or similar system) into a quality listing can take about half an hour. Listing two products per hour, per person means that even with a team of ten, it takes 50 hours to list 1000 products – that’s ten people, working for over a week, to list a collection.

Ultimately, this approach is ineffective, costs far too much and can still result in outcomes that are too slow to meet customer and competitive demand. If you are able to get your products posted faster, you can beat your competition to market. If you can achieve this with a smaller team, you will keep your overheads down and improve the overall efficiency of your operation while also freeing up time for more creative tasks.

The fix: engage with automated solutions. In response to the complexity of online product listings, tech companies have begun to produce solutions built from the ground up to remove the manual effort required to operate a digital team. By using technology more intelligently to minimise the amount of manual work in spreadsheets, companies are able to list products faster with fewer people — delivering a better outcome in every way. These technology solutions also enable the ability to collect and store product data from the ERP or other systems. Fundamentally, centralising data makes it easier to work on. Automating workloads provides more time to focus on the intelligent half of the ecommerce process.  

Problem 3: Optimisation and Accuracy

In the rush to get listings live quickly, mistakes get made, data is left missing, and product listings are often created with not much more than the bare essentials. This means missing out on the SEO benefits of including the nice-to-have product data as well as the necessary basics to list.

Particularly when engaging with manual listing processes, there is rarely any time left in the day to look at results, customer behaviours, trends etc. Even when the team does have time to access some form of analytics or reporting, they’re unlikely to have time to understand what actions they can take in response to the data they’re given. This becomes even more complicated when you add in paid promotional performance management, e.g. CPC advertising on Amazon or Google Shopping ads.

The fix: Use the time saved by automating listings to start finding actionable insights. When making technology purchases to aid in product listings, make sure that those IT solutions also deliver analytics capabilities - or better, optimisation suggestions which you can action easily, without having to move between systems. 

As a rule, always look for real-time optimisations backed up by data. Isolate quick wins that can be actioned by adding to or changing product listings — then execute. You will have more time in the long run to assess long-term trends. But, never underestimate the importance of short-term iterations and learning from immediate customer behaviour. Your ability to act on that in the immediate is critical to your long-term success.  

Summary: Technology Enables Improvements and Insights Your Team Needs to Deliver

Technology is enabling ecommerce teams to cut through the confusion of online product listings — delivering analytics insights and data, which users can extrapolate to learn how best to create product listings for a individual channels. These services can be found in different dedicated applications. But, the best retail IT solutions will bundle these capabilities within a single platform and make the insights actionable at the touch of a button, optimised for the specific customer profile you're targeting.

Fundamentally, ecommerce teams need to change the way in which they approach product listing creation and management by using the latest technologies to streamline manual processes and generate actionable insights. This allows them to recover time and value lost in spreadsheets and cluttered data — enabling them to focus on making sense of insights and actually improving outcomes.

However, success does ultimately rely on how your team utilises and deploys these technological solutions. Even the best IT solution will not make a positive impact if it is not incorporated into improved processes. Resolving the problems teams face managing product listings with online marketplaces comes down to partnering technology with improved processes and employee expertise. Having the best shot possible at making process improvements starts with finding an ecommerce IT listing solution that delivers automation, platform insights and analytics capabilities. 

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