National product registry to serve grocers, pharmacies

Canada’s grocery, food service and pharmacy industries are cleaning up their data as they prepare to activate an electronic product registry that will replace paper-based processes by the end of this year.

Well known enterprises including A&P, Sobeys and Shoppers Drug Mart are participating

in the creation of ECCNet, a project managed by the Electronic Commerce Council of Canada. When it goes lives on Dec. 31, the bilingual repository is expected to synchronize product listings and global location data for more than 1,200 vendors serving Canada’s retailers and distributors. At this point, more than 190,000 products have been entered into the custom database.

Eileen MacDonald, the ECC’s vice-president of marketing, says ECCNet will reduce costs to Canadian suppliers who would be otherwise forced to load product data onto the individual proprietary systems of various retailers. Currently, a food vendor who does business with Loblaws, for example, submits a listings sheet that is manually entered into the grocery chain’s system. The same process has to happen with each of the vendor’s other grocer partners. Through ECCNet, MacDonald says information will be loaded once while allowing many retailers and distributors to access it.

“What we call it is turning off the paper,” she says, adding the non-profit group wants ECCNet to become a national standard. “(Otherwise) you’re not going to hit critical mass and you’re not going to see the advantage.”

Flanagan Food Service Inc., which operates distribution centres in Kitchener, Owen Sound and Sudbury, Ont., is among the trading partners looking forward to the transition to ECCNet.

“Now, every distributor and manufacturer is communicating independently. There is such huge opportunity for errors and communication problems,” says Dan Flanagan, the firm’s president. “There are discrepancies and extra work involved in trying to resolve all these things. I think the benefits are just amazing.”

MacDonald cites research from consulting firm A.T. Kearney that says the U.S. grocery industry wastes US$87 million on bad data. The same problems are rampant here.

“As simple a thing as putting in ‘brown’ instead of ‘black’ would throw the system off so they wouldn’t jive at the time of paying an invoice,” she says. “Or you ordered 1,000 black pens and you ended up with 1,000 brown pens.”

The ECC is receiving funding for the program through CANARIE Inc., another non-for-profit corporation supported by members and the federal government. Stephane Poirier Defoy, project analyst with CANARIE’s E-Business program, says the ECC application took about a year because the ECC needed to prove it could garner the support and collaboration from the companies across the industries ECCNet will affect.

“The value proposition was really good, but the second element we were looking for is commercialization and viability of the product,” he says. “I think this is one of our champion projects, since the repercussions are really broad.”

MacDonald says the ECC has been conducting education and training to help grocery and pharmacy firms enter information in the database. More than 27 major Canadian retailers are mandating ECCNet use to their trading partners in their vendor buying agreements.

“If they do nothing else and they just cleanse their data, they have seen huge benefit,” she says.

It could take some guidance to bring pockets of the supply chain up to speed, notes Flanagan.

“Certainly it’s going to be difficult for some of the smaller manufacturers and even some of the smaller distributors,” he says. “On the other hand, the ECC is being fairly flexible in how you implement this.”

While there is a similar product registry in the U.S. and one in Europe serving several countries, MacDonald says the ECC has already been approached for advice on how to follow its example. ECCNet will also help ensure international supply chain standards reflect Canadian needs (like metric and bilingualism, for example) as they evolve.

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