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It’s Time To Retire The Item Master; Here’s What Should Replace It

Peter Charness, UST

The time has come for an advanced replacement for the Item Master

Peter Charness, UST

For years, the Item Master, a constellation of files containing product base data, has been an unspoken foundation of retail systems. Featuring a wealth of information, including the description, unit of measure, weight, dimensions, pictures, it educates retailers and their consumers about any particular product, as it moves from supplier, through DC’s, Stores and to the Consumer. The Item master serves as a nerve center for thousands of applications.

Item Master integrations resemble nerve pathways emanating from a central source that wire together a complex and comprehensive set of data, change notifications, and processes. By changing something in the structure or processes surrounding Item Master, you run the risk of severing the connection to the supply chain or breaking pages on the website. It is not uncommon for an Item Master to have hundreds and hundreds of touchpoints, many of which are in unseen or unnoticed locations. This complexity is why few retailers ever consider touching the process.

But Item Masters, a hallmark of retailing since the computing revolution, are groaning under the weight of outdated architecture. This has stifled innovation when robust and updated information packets could bring so much more creativity and purpose to the on- and off-line retail experience. It is far past time for the Item Master to receive a makeover. We propose the Product Information Resource Repository (PIRR), a new and modern way to satisfy both the organization’s and the shoppers’ needs.

We recommend moving to PIRR through a continuous and agile release strategy that combines business deliverables with the technical modernization project versus a wholesale Item Master "rip and replace.”

Depending on the systems topologies in place, it may make sense to quickly move to new and improved PIRR entry/management screens on new underlying data platforms but keep these newer datasets automatically synchronized with the older files on a real-time basis. In contrast, the process of moving the integrations over to the newer tables takes place.

Here are five core tenets governing how organizations can begin their transition to PIRRs.

1. Make the PIRR Complete

Modernizing Item Master to a PIRR requires evaluating which classes of information to add to complete this process. Organizations should consider the following classes of information:

2. Build the PIRR on Durable Technology

While many Item Masters today rely on disseminating information to downstream solutions through a periodic update cycle, the needs of the shopper and the online business require a real-time cycle. A modern PIRR should feature microservices- and cloud-based solutions. These technologies will support the needs of getting data in and out of the data repository. These microservices will be mapped to provide the base for the connections to all the legacy solutions.

The data stores available today to support the PIRR offer far greater capabilities than prior models, including column-store solutions. These offer a simpler manner for the ongoing expansion needs of a modern PIRR, particularly the ability to add additional attributes.

The PIRR will have to support downstream solutions in all manners of technology environments, ranging potentially from mainframe to cloud. A PIRR should live on a platform governed by orchestration communication and integration that is simple to build, support, and expand.

3. Make the PIRR process efficient. Automate workload and governance:

With an increased number of new products available, there is a requirement for those who have to deal with the care and feeding of the PIRR to support a far greater product count with less effort. Reducing this workload requires a higher degree of automation than is typically found in today's environments.

A modern PIRR solution should incorporate enhanced workflow, default or AI-based smart product data entry suggestions, and smart rule-based governance. Retailers can even obtain competitive information, either starting data from syndicated or public sources or the suppliers themselves.

Modern solutions can make data entry suggestions, populating screens with intelligent defaults and suggestions that can reduce the time and effort of setting up new products.

Lastly, with a goal of getting new products onboarded faster-inbuilt workflow that routes information and decisions/approvals to the appropriate parties, and RPA (robotic process automation) can cut the time and costs of product management.

4. Integration & Roll Out

Changing from Inventory Masters to PIRRs means ensuring that there are no (unplanned) impacts to downstream solutions, requiring a comprehensive map of downstream solutions and making changes downstream where necessary.

Accomplishing this aspect of a PIRR renovation requires both the adoption of appropriate orchestration technology, as well as a highly detailed and thorough plan of discovery, testing, and implementation. PIRR integration requires both continuing existing feeds with the current data formats and communications techniques, as well as create more modern microservices-based capabilities to provide the basis for the next integration change, or to make the speed and flexibility to keep up with real-time needs, such as information for ecommerce, or the next online solution whether on-premise or in the cloud.

5. Utilizing External Sources

As noted above, it makes sense to seek out and leverage syndicated, public, or other data sources that can reduce the time and effort of internal teams in getting new products onboarded. Having a robust Vendor Portal that self-configures to your Vendor’s products and capabilities will save time.

AI-based capabilities with proper inference and learning models can parse incomplete publicly available data to complete product information.

At UST, we've been working with some of the worlds' largest retailers on all five of the areas indicated above. We are the right specialist to discuss your needs for Item Master renovation to PIRR. We have accomplished multiple project missions where our clients have experienced zero adverse business interruption and zero defects on go-lives.