New Standard Might Make E-Commerce Product Comparisons A Lot Easier

A major tradegroup on Tuesday unveiled new E-Commerce product format guidelines, which might help consumers more accurately compare products. But first, retailers have to reverse their proprietary ways.

The new standard data exchange formats were introduced by the Association for Retail Technical Standards (ARTS), which is a part of the National Retail Federation (NRF). The intent of the new rules was clearly to help lighten the processing burdens of retailers as they submit product details to various product-comparison Web sites.

But a possible unintended consequence of the move is that it might help those product-comparison sites more easily identify which products are identical. For years, product-comparison sites have complained that retailers deliberately make such comparisons difficult.

ARTS Executive Director Richard Mader said retailers today typically see product error rates as high as 50 percent because of the difficulties in formatting the same data for different comparison sites.

Many search engines require a lot of data about a product's description, size, color, weight and functionality, but they differ on which pieces of information each needs, the sequence it has to submitted and various formatting requirements. A large retailer might have to send information to ten different comparative engines, Mader said.

"There are 50 to 100 pieces of information that the search engines want," Mader said. "Every time you make changes and reformat, you create errors. This new standard might drop the error rate to five percent."

Any standard is only as strong as the retailers and comparative sites that ultimately support it. Mader couldn't say who would support, but he said major industry players helped create the standard, so he had strong hopes that they'll use it.

"MSN helped us build it. AOL helped us build it. Channel Intelligence helped us build it," he said, adding that CircuitCity and AOL had been involved in a test project for the last three weeks.

As for Google, Mader said, "Google tends to want to set their own direction, kind of like Wal-Mart." Asked about Amazon, Mader said he no firm indication. "Amazon came to some meetings," he said.

The XML-specified data formats include a built-in verification engine. Today, when data glitches, retailers often do not know about the problem. With the new approach, a failed posting delivers a confirmation message that "identifies that the message was not posted and says why," Mader said.

Retail analysts applauded the move. "It seems like this development is long overdue. The fact that various shopping comparison engines were able to create their own standards for so long speaks more to the fragmentation of the eCommerce industry than anything," said Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru. "It's a step in the right direction to improving efficiencies and enabling retailers to focus their IT and marketing resources on more pressing issues than troubleshooting numerous datafeeds."

Paula Rosenblum, a retail technology analyst with the Retail Systems Alert Group, agreed that the ARTS effort is laudable, but questioned whether today's retailers?who are sometimes challenged to accurately present consistent product information across multiple parts of their own sites?are up to the task.

"So far, any surveys I've done tell me retailers are lagging just in getting a common lexicon for products within their own cross-channel houses," Rosenblum said.

With the potential for comparison sites to use this data to make products differences?or the lack of same?more transparent to consumers, Rosenblum wondered the ultimate impact. "The other interesting thing to note is that with these standards, we'll take another step towards providing consumers with the ability to use stores as a 'showroom' and look for the same product elsewhere."

Product comparison sites are one of the fastest growing segments of the Web, with even toying with new techniques to bring in bargain-hunting consumers.

IHL President Greg Buzek said the potential for the ARTS effort to truly make retail prices more transparent could have a massive impact on E-Commerce strategies.

"If that could occur, that would be the retail nirvana for consumers and mobile commerce," Buzek said. "This has been a hindrance to mobile commerce because the thought of people comparing items SKU to SKU is not possible when everyone modifies the model slightly. If they are able to do that, it would be huge."