B2B eCommerce Challenges: Managing Catalog Content

Bill Onion

Best Practices for Catalog Content Management

Ecommerce sites require incredible amounts of data. Purchasing departments and consumers are now demanding short and extended descriptions of products, item dimensions and attributes, identification of related items and especially high-quality product images. In that regard, these expectations can be particularly challenging for a business-to-business company, especially one that is making its debut in the online marketplace. Oftentimes, data is scattered across disparate systems – printed and filed in cabinets, saved to a shared drive and again on several desktops, within a master excel file which has three versions and a few pieces in the ERP.

Critical Tip: If you’re implementing a B2B ecommerce site, prevent an immediate blow-up by collecting and organizing all of your data first.

Where can I find catalog data?

Ecommerce catalogs require a tremendous amount of data in order to effectively showcase products. Fortunately, whether it’s marketing copy featuring well-written, descriptive content, or product specifications which have been garnered from the manufacturer or engineer, this data resides somewhere within your organization. The real trick is finding that data and accessing it.

Enterprise software systems (ERP)

Often, much of this product data can be found within the enterprise software system, affectionately known as the ERP. Systems such as SAP, Great Plains and JD Edwards are designed to store large volumes of Item Master Data. Unfortunately, these systems simply hold and organize it data primarily to feed their own Order Management and Shipping processes. Typically, this data will need to be augmented once it has been entered into the ecommerce engine.


Catalog data can also be acquired from the vendor that supplies these items. Often, the vendor has rich content and high quality images available. Again, the biggest challenge is accessibility. . More recently, vendors are beginning to make their content available online; however, this typically requires building processes and systems to capture this data and making it available to the ecommerce system.

Point of Sale Systems

Another viable option is your point of sale system. These systems store data about your products, and are specifically geared to simplifying the sales process for your customers, so there should be good content and images there.

What catalog data do I need?

Ecommerce systems have a voracious appetite for content, and most organizations are not prepared, initially, to feed this beast. There are some key pieces of data that should be passed to the ecommerce system and there are some key decisions to make along the way.

Item Number or Item Name

This innocuous little data element often causes confusion within the project team. Should the site be loaded with the ERP item number, the Manufacturer’s item number, or perhaps (somehow) the customer’s item number? There’s no right answer for this, as it depends on who the target is for the site, especially in the b-to-b world. However, we generally like to load all three, whenever possible.

Extended descriptions

Ecommerce systems simply love robust extended descriptions, especially search engine optimized descriptions. Typically, this SEO-enhanced data does not exist in the organization. Generally we find that extended descriptions, if available, are really only beneficial to the internal sales team. Converting and enhancing this content for presentation on the web, and especially for SEO purposes, turns into a Herculean task for the project team.

Item Images

Like a baseball team can never have too many starting pitchers, ecommerce systems cannot have too many product images. Unfortunately, most older ERP systems do not store product images, and the newer systems only store a handful. And video, forget about it. Stack your lineup by acquiring a digital asset management tool, either a licensed or open source version.

How do I get catalog data to the site?

Once all the catalog data is found and organized, a strategy needs to be devised to get the catalog loaded into the ecommerce system. To help set the strategy, two key questions need to be answered. First, how many items will exist in the catalog once the site is fully deployed. Second, how often will this catalog data change once it is deployed?

These two questions will help to determine the best strategy:

No Integration between the systems:

In this scenario, the ecommerce catalog is loaded manually from the data which was acquired. Then, as modifications are made, this information is updated in both the source and the ecommerce system. This is often a good approach for small catalogs which won’t change very often. This typically is best for a startup, as the catalog can be loaded quickly, and relatively inexpensively.

Integration between the systems:

Integration of the ecommerce catalog from another system (typically the ERP) allows the organization to keep the catalog data synchronized and consistent. Integration also reduces the amount of human time and effort needed to update the online catalog. There are generally two types of integration; extract and import or full integration. These two scenarios are better suited for high volume catalogs with frequent updates. Organizing the catalog data is not an easy task, and is a major risk for new ecommerce sites. Ultimately, the effort required is rewarded as the site will look amazing and the customers will find (and purchase) what they want. 

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