Smarter catalogue management through automation: a primer for online retailers

September 27th, 2011 by Alex

This post is the first in a Keplar series for online retailers, showing you how to automate your way to a more profitable and responsive e-commerce business. Get in touch to discuss how to apply these techniques to your company.

At Keplar we have just completed a “soup-to-nuts” project launching a new image-heavy e-commerce site in the lifestyle space; the retailer has launched with 100 SKUs (each with 17 product images) with a plan to grow its catalogue aggressively to 1,000+ SKUs over the next 6 months. With these sorts of numbers, catalogue management – especially around product imagery – starts to be a real headache and also potentially a significant time/cost sink for the business: even something as simple as updating the watermark on each image becomes a major untaking.

The headaches of manual processes

The headaches of manual processes

Off-the-shelf technology solutions to streamline these processes already exist – typically referred to as Master Data Management systems, the leader in the field is probably Hybris with their Hybris PCM (product content management) system. But the Hybris technology stack is designed for major retailers with very large catalogues and/or complex product lifecycles – and it is priced accordingly; there’s no real equivalent for smaller retailers who want a better (i.e. less manual) approach to catalogue management than that provided by their ecommerce package.

Our client had selected PrestaShop as their shopfront and, in the absence of any good free/low-cost MDM technology, they started with a completely manual process for image creation (using Photoshop CS5) and image upload (using PrestaShop’s web-based administration interface). Manual processes can be painful but we recommend working with a manual process first before attempting to automate that process through custom scripting, Mechanical Turk or similar – that way you know that you are automating the “right thing”, and you can have confidence that the cost-saving from the automation is worth the upfront cost of implementing that automation.

Having mapped the retailer’s manual processes for product catalogue management, three things quickly became clear:

  1. There were repetitive image processing tasks which were worth automating – in particular, there were adjustments to canvas size, watermarking and glow effects which had to be made multiple times across all of the 1,700 odd images
  2. The image sizes were larger than usual for an ecommerce website – this was a deliberate strategy by the retailer, who wanted to differentiate their site from the competition with much higher quality product shots. This had a negative impact on page load times as well as contributing to:
  3. The manual image upload process was very time-consuming and error-prone – the number of images plus the images’ file sizes made uploading the product photos into the PrestaShop back-end very time consuming. And as with all slow, manual processes, it was very error-prone, with some of the 1,700 images being missed or not being kept up-to-date

Once we had identified these three issues, we then worked with the client to determine the best solutions to each. The first problem was the easiest to solve – we recorded the repetitive image processing actions in Photoshop and then simply applied those “macros” when needed across the whole product image library (or a targeted subset of it). We will discuss this approach in more detail in a future blog post, as there are some specific tricks and techniques for a retailer working with a large product catalogue.

For the second and third issues we went with a more radical solution: we decided to decouple the shop’s product image catalogue from PrestaShop altogether, instead relying on Amazon S3, Amazon CloudFront and some custom scripting. Amazon S3 is Amazon’s “cloud-based” file storage system, and it has a straightforward API which makes it easy to programmatically upload large numbers of files. S3 in turn works nicely with CloudFront, which is Amazon’s worldwide CDN (Content Delivery Network) technology: by serving your product photos through CloudFront, your site visitors are guaranteed fast download times wherever they are in the world.

So instead of directly uploading the image files into the PrestaShop back-end, with the new approach we simply wrote a script (in Haskell) to upload the files onto Amazon S3, from where they would be automatically served – very speedily – to site visitors anywhere in the world using CloudFront. In PrestaShop, all we had to do was specify for each product the URL to the CloudFront-hosted folder of product photos.

And so when we bulk-updated the product photography using our Photoshop batch scripts, it was simply a matter of rerunning the S3 upload script and telling CloudFront which files had changed. With this approach the client no longer needed to manually upload any product shots into PrestaShop – saving the client from a significant, ongoing time commitment.

As you can see, a willingness to start scripting repetitive tasks, and to look outside the capabilities of your ecommerce package, can pay real dividends in terms of streamlining your retail operations and even, in the case of CloudFront, improving your customer experience. At Keplar we believe that cloud services, third-party APIs and custom scripting provide excellent automation opportunities for those e-commerce sites which have somehow got stuck in the “slow lane” of repetitive  manual processes. To flesh this thinking out further, in our next post in this series we will take a more in-depth technical look at some of the S3 and CloudFront scripting we implemented for this client.

Are you a retailer stuck in the “slow lane” of repetitive manual processes? To discuss automation techniques for your online or offline retail business, get in touch with Keplar.

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