There was a time when retailers only had to worry about listing their products in one annual catalogue and perhaps a weekly flyer, but with the advent of the Internet and various digital channels to showcase their wares, companies are seeing their promotional content spiral out of control.

Corporate

Express Canada Inc. (CEC) of Montréal was one such company. A business-to-business supplier of office and computer products and services, CEC delivers product and promotion information to its customers through a number of channels, but instead of pulling product information — everything from pricing, specifications and images — from a central repository, that information was spread out over numerous repositories and stored in a variety of file formats, says Luc Marotte, CEC’s vice-president of information technology.

Last September, CEC turned to another Montréal area company, Flow Systems, to streamline its product information management and promotion processes and at the same time improve customers’ online buying experiences. The first phase of the overall implementation was completed in April, and using Flow’s Content Factory, CEC’s marketing department is able to more quickly and efficiently produce catalogues, promotional flyers and direct marketing tools.

“”We have operational files in our ERP system,”” says Marotte, “”we had images for the ‘Net in one database and long descriptions for the ‘Net in another database. All of the print stuff was separate. We had print stuff in Montréal, we had print stuff in Toronto.””

The first step toward rationalization, says Marotte, was to focus on one type of output method. “”We started with the print data and loaded it into Flow. Then we complemented the data we were missing from the other sources and then we closed the other sources we didn’t need.””

“”They had five existing data systems which we consolidated into one,”” says Martin Le Sauteur, Flow’s CEO. One of those sources was actually an external one. “”We brought the best of all five under one roof.”” That means there is no retyping or duplication of information. There is also tight integration with Flow’s technology and CEC’s ERP system, Le Sauteur adds.

Now the marketing department is able to quickly build any promotional material from the same reservoir of information and be consistent across the various channels. A typical catalogue used to take about 16 weeks to put

together, says Marotte. Now it takes four to six weeks. In addition, CEC could theoretically build customer catalogues for certain vertical markets.

The second phase of the project includes the implementation of a suite of e-commerce solutions to help CEC publish its online catalogue. CEC customers will be able to search its database of more than 50,000 items.

“”There are companies out there that do product content management to enable to the buy side and supply chain side of things,”” Le Sauter says. “”We’re really on the side of promotions. Promotions to us are a set of products you put together in a medium to send to a customer to turn into sales, whether it’s a flyer on your doorstep, a catalogue or an e-flyer.””

Le Sauteur says while there are a lot more digital channels for Flow’s customers to promote through, almost of them still rely on the print channel to do the

majority of their sales, and want to be able to reuse the same promotional material, regardless of medium. “”The multi-channel experience is here to stay,”” says Le Sauter. “”And it’s going to get worse.””

Sheryl Kingstone, program manager for CRM strategies with The Yankee Group in Boston, says Flow is a small company solving a big problem.

“”The majority of vendors don’t do good job of managing structured and unstructured content,”” she says, adding there’s an opportunity for a niche player such as Flow to capitalize on an area that ERP vendors don’t.

Flow’s technology is appealing because it doesn’t require a huge investment in new technology, says Kingstone. “”They tap into the existing IT infrastructure and then extend it.””

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