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Industrial supply company refines product data with Stibo MDM software

When Grainger wanted to get a better handle on its product data, it turned to master data management (MDM) software from Stibo.

Data management is a sometimes overlooked yet mission-critical function for any company. The bigger the organization is, the greater the amounts of data, and the more urgent the need to keep close tabs on a vast library of information from design and production to sales and beyond. Organizing and storing huge quantities of product information (PI) was a challenge for Grainger, a Chicago-based Fortune 500 distributor of industrial supplies and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) equipment.

According to Gene Rados, senior director of projects and content management, the correlation between better data management and greater customer satisfaction was the prime motivator when Grainger selected the STEP master data management (MDM) software from Stibo Systems in 2009.

The goal, Rados explained, was to "provide a single source of product information and a publishing environment that can be leveraged to facilitate product portfolio management, global merchandising and global marketing across all channels to all customer targets. The MDM platform needed to fully leverage Grainger's product portfolio and information assets to create a competitive advantage."

Leveraging MDM software's PIM capabilities

Grainger was looking for an MDM system with product information management (PIM) functionality that could "support the acquisition and management of millions of products, across a multibranded and multichannel global business," Rados said. The software also needed to leverage business data to create print catalogs, online and mobile sites, as well as support new product onboarding and the product portfolio integration that came with corporate acquisitions.

While vetting MDM vendors, Grainger worked from a list of business requirements and functionality needs in key operational segments related to PIM and catalog publishing. "One of the evaluation criteria for the new MDM solution was that it would leverage Grainger's current technology landscape," Rados said. This landscape consisted of both SAP and Oracle databases, as well as many "one-off" Microsoft Access databases.

"Not all data was shared by or between consumers," he said. "The definitions of supply-chain-oriented data elements were not consistent, which made it difficult to determine things such as 'Is it really hazmat or is it marketed as being able to accommodate hazmat?' and 'Is the unit of measure [UOM] what we buy in or what we sell in?'"

This data inconsistency extended to product descriptions, creating problems across the manufacturing and sales processes, Rados explained. "People in the warehouse wanted to change the description to support UOM. The quotes department wanted to change the short description which, in turn, was eventually followed by the e-commerce team, which said they weren't descriptive enough," he said. "After a while, they found themselves backtracking to fill data gaps in order to help a specific department with whatever problem they wanted to solve."

The company knew it needed to consolidate business processes and move to a single data-entry point that could be supported across multiple back ends, according to Rados. Grainger also wanted to avoid eliminating its central product information repository (CPIR), and instead find a way to leverage what already existed into the new MDM system. Stibo's STEP package supported these long-term data management goals.

"Before introducing MDM from Stibo, there was very little chance of picking up on data inconsistencies before they caused a problem," Rados said. "The approach to product data maintenance tended to be reactive vs. the current state of proactive."

The Stibo MDM project was initially rolled out in Grainger's U.S. facilities, covering 15 Grainger business brands. Since then, the system has been expanded into the company's Mexican and Canadian operations, with data available for French- and Spanish-speaking users.

Stibo MDM software speeds workflows, streamlines product data

Grainger is currently on version 5.3 of the STEP platform but is planning to move to version 6.1 in the near future, according to Rados. The platform is built as a centralized hub, which feeds into the catalog application, e-commerce site, branch order entry systems, SAP modules and lab safety supply (LSS) back-end systems.

The company is using STEP not just for MDM and PIM, but also for data quality and data governance, said Rados. Data input to Stibo comes from a template, which suppliers fill out. Completed templates are put through a workflow, validated and fed into the system. A similar process is used for maintaining item information, where data feeds are set up and scheduled each night to make any necessary changes to product information.

"[Data] ownership is spread across a number of business units, but the stewardship and custodianship of data is centrally managed," Rados said. "Business owners meet on a regular basis to describe or submit changes to how the information is managed. The goal is to evolve the model as business or regulatory environments change. Change is constant."

Since implementing the STEP MDM system, Grainger's productivity has skyrocketed, said Rados. "Prior to STEP, Grainger was very limited in how many items [the company] could add on an annual basis. Grainger started with a legacy environment of about 30,000, yet in 2011 did over 200,000 SKUs [stock keeping units] within a year," he said. In addition, Grainger's onboarding capabilities have also increased by speeding up the process by which product information is added to the system and made available to customers.

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Rados also noted that implementing STEP has improved the speed and accuracy of Grainger's product catalog. The company produced a 250-page test catalog within the first few weeks of going live with Stibo, Rados said, and today prints an annual catalog consisting of over 4,400 pages with more than half a million products, all managed by STEP.

In general, the STEP MDM package has given Grainger the opportunity to consider new ways of getting its products in front of the right audiences, Rados said. "Currently, Grainger has a standard process in which we group products, and we have to leverage that standard approach across all channels. In the future, the system may be used to set up different types of alternative merchandising opportunities for those channels that don't necessarily bump up against what they do from a collection standpoint," he said. Grainger's team meets regularly with Stibo to review the vendor's roadmap, and based on that, Rados believes all these additional goals will be met with future versions of STEP.

The information that is available through STEP is helping Grainger to use consumer feedback to improve customer satisfaction in a more customizable way, he added, allowing customers " to shop the way they want to shop, to search the way they want to search, [as well as allowing Grainger to] present different views to that customer based on criteria such as their location."

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