NEW YORK--Retailers are adding suppliers to their Quick Response programs at a rapid clip. But they say that expansion would be difficult if not impossible were it not for UPC catalog services. The catalog services give manufacturers a central place where they can deposit up-to-date UPC information on every size, color and style of every product they offer. All the retailers they serve can then access that information at will from the central source. Without these dial-up, on-line services, retailers and manufacturers would have to deal one-on-one with their many EDI partners to access the proper information. "The catalog services provide a very efficient way to house and maintain all that data," said Gay Millson-Whitney, electronic data interchange director at Saks Fifth Avenue. "It would be an enormous workload for us to keep that information up to date on our own." "You can't react to 400 different fashion vendors individually," added Dan Smith, senior vice-president of information systems at Younkers. "It's easier to access one of the catalogs. Cross-referencing our UPC information with the vendors' is one of the biggest bottlenecks in Quick Response. The UPC catalogs are updated frequently, and that is critical--especially when it comes to fashion." Catalogs allow the retailer the option of not cross-referencing at all. "Cross-referencing information from all your vendors creates a huge MIS maintenance nightmare," commented Jim Crossley, retail director at Sterling Software, one of the three catalog service providers. "With a catalog service, retailers can use vendor UPC numbers internally rather than assigning their own SKU numbers." Retailers access information from the catalogs in a stepwise fashion. First they would enter the name of the vendors whose data they want to see. Then they would enter a selection code for type of garment--men's shoes or women's dresses, etc. Next they'd get to a more specific level, say, long-sleeved, buttondown oxford shirts. Once they zero in on a specific UPC, they can access by standard National Retail Federation size and color codes, see product descriptions, discontinue dates, manufacturer's suggested retail price and published cost to retailers--all vital information for a buyer contemplating placing an order. Retailers not looking for information on a specific SKU can also browse the catalog to plan merchandising mixes. The uniformity of the data presentation across vendors is another reason the catalog services are so useful. "Most retailers have 1,500 to 3,000 vendors, or more," commented Tari Bach, product manager at Quick Response Services, a large, well-established catalog service. "Without a catalog, they'd be getting data that looks different coming in from the various vendors that supply them. Even though the vendors try to adhere to VICS standards, not all of them are working on the same VICS update." Scott Fitzpatrick, manager of EDI administration at Mercantile Stores, said the catalogs make supporting QR relationships easier for manufacturers also. "The majority of the big apparel manufacturers are on the catalog services," he said. "They change SKUs and styles a lot, so it's easier for them to reach all their customers at once through a catalog. And it's a lot easier for us. We prefer that UPC cataloging is handled through a third-party service. We don't want to deal one-on-one." Manufacturers also recognize the efficiencies the catalogs afford. "The catalog networks provide a service that saves both the retailers and the vendors a lot of effort," said Marsha Parr, vice-president of corporate Quick Response at Haggar. "And they do it much less expensively than we could." The catalog services are supported by both retailers and manufacturers. Manufacturers pay to list their UPC information with the services, and retailers pay to access it. Lisa Lichtenberg, a divisional vice-president at Federated, said the cataloging systems are easy to understand. "This is so wonderful because you can tell exactly what a product is from the code," she said. "The color white, for instance, always starts with a 1, so if you see the digits 100 in a code, you know a product is white. The vendor assigns the code and sends it to QRS, our third-party catalog. There's a lot of information in a 20-digit alphanumeric code." Parr said Haggar lists its products with both the QRS and General Electric Information Services on-line catalogs. She said keeping all the retailers it supplies up to date on ever-changing UPC information would be extremely difficult if the company had to communicate that information one on one. "We have over 250,000 active UPCs at any time in our system," Parr said. "This way, the retailer can access only the UPCs that are important to their business. And they can do it whenever they like. Imagine the effort involved if we had to get the right UPC information to the right retail buyer on an individual basis." "Quick Response is based on having the correct UPC number and all the information associated with it," said Bach of QRS. "If they want to do Quick Response efficiently, the retailer and the manufacturer have to be speaking the same language. That's what the UPC enables them to do." Accurate, frequently updated data is another reason for the popularity of the catalogs. "Our catalog service lets the retailers stay in synch with the latest information on size, color and style," said Al Boynton, manager of logistics and retail services at GEIS. "They're also informed of the last date to ship and order and if items are discontinued." Boynton said the retailer Quick Response mandates have made catalog service even more important to both retailers and manufacturers. He said vendors are rushing to list their products on the services to ease the transition to Quick Response. "Our growth would be a lot slower without the mandates," he said. "Many retailers couldn't comply with the mandates without access to outside UPC catalog services. We have one men's tailored clothing manufacturer with three million UPC codes. That's an awful lot of information to communicate to all your retail clients." Bach of QRS agreed that the mandates have fueled the popularity of the services. "We started in 1988 with large vendors like Levi's and VF Corp., but it's only now that we are getting to the smaller vendors," she said. "It's the mandates from the retailers that are getting these smaller players up. "Nine months ago we had 450 vendors represented in our catalog. Now we have more than 1,000. The Dillard's, Younkers and Federated mandates have more than doubled our vendor base. Even though the first of those mandates didn't take effect until Aug. 1., vendors knew about them a year before and signed on to the service in anticipation of them." Boynton said 250 vendors listed their UPCs with GEIS by the end of last year. He said that figure will rise to 450 by the end of 1994. Thirty million UPCs are listed in the GEIS catalog. There are approximately 1,000 characters of information total per item. Bach said about 32 million UPCs are currently listed in the QRS catalog, a figure she said is growing "by about one million every month or two. "A large department store would find their top 200 to 300 vendors on our catalog already," she added. "Then we'd work with the retailer to get other vendors up." The catalog services say the attention they pay to the accuracy of the listings keeps both retailers and vendors coming. "All our data has been checked for accuracy," Bach said. "If the information were coming in to a retailer bad directly from a vendor, I don't think most retailers would take the time to show the vendor how to fix it. We do. And when we sign on a new vendor, we try to debug all the processes before we start accepting commercial data from that vendor."
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