Grandpa's Got Some New Moves

At 67 years old, Chicago-based Newark Electronics can rightfully stake a claim to being the grandfather of electronics distributors. But far from resting on its laurels, this spry senior is using some newfangled software to make tailored e-catalogs...


[From iSource Business, September 2001] In this age of e-everything, Newark Electronics' paper catalog remains one of the distributor's greatest assets. At 1,700 pages, it is a standard fixture on the desks of design engineers and purchasers of maintenance, repair and operating (MRO) goods. Our customer base loves to flip through the catalog, look at the pictures and see the hot, new engineering products, says Tony Chien, vice president and general manager of e-commerce at Newark. They have been ordering from the Newark catalog for 10 or 20 years, and they don't want to give it up.

Chien has the figures to back up that claim: the 200,000 copies of the catalog Newark sends out every year help to generate more than 10,000 orders a day and $630 million in annual revenues. That sales volume has made Newark the largest small-order stocking distributor of electronic components in North America, as well as the largest unit in the worldwide catalog distribution division of Newark's parent company, U.K.-based Premier Farnell plc.

Newark's customers like the catalog so much, in fact, that as they have migrated their purchasing online through such e-procurement platforms as Ariba, Commerce One and Oracle they have looked to the distributor to move its 150,000 sales keeping units (SKUs) into customized e-catalogs. Our large, Fortune 1000 customers are installing these purchasing systems to save them a lot of money, Chien explains, and they want us, as a major supplier, to support them. Newark also has been forming partnerships with companies such as SAP, Requisite, TPN Register and various e-marketplaces that call for the electronics distributor to provide uniquely configured online catalogs.

e-Catalogs: The Hard Way

Moving 150,000 SKUs into customized catalogs for multiple customers turns out to be exactly as complicated as it sounds. Newark's challenges have included adapting its product data to each customer's formatting and content requirements, assembling the product mix and pricing appropriate for the customer, and putting the resultant catalogs through a rigorous quality assurance (QA) process. The company's in-house team of software developers, which started working in 1999 on an ad hoc basis, using SQL scripts to generate the catalogs, found that it took up to two weeks to complete each project.

Once Newark had completed a catalog, the company faced the equally daunting task of keeping it up to date with current product and pricing information, a process that consumed 10 to15 man-hours per customer catalog per update. In addition, even as the company began to expand the number of online catalogs it was syndicating to its customers, the complexity of the catalogs was increasing, according to Dianne Ahrens, director of business development and Internet partnerships at Newark. In the early days, the emphasis was just on part numbers and descriptions and price, Ahrens explains. Now they want more detailed parametric data and images.

In 1999 Newark's team posted e-catalogs for 10 customers. In 2000, as e-business continued to grow, the company completed 22 projects, with additional requests coming in from customers at a rate of one or two a week plus quarterly updates for the catalogs already online. The work was growing like mad, Chien says, overwhelming the team of two SQL programmers that the company had working on the catalogs and requiring hundreds of hours of management time for quality assurance. Ultimately, Newark concluded that it needed to adopt a specialized tool for preparing and maintaining its online catalogs.

Automating the Process

Newark's criteria as it looked at solutions from several e-catalog providers were straightforward. It needed to be able to handle the wide variety of online catalog formats and taxonomies but also to adapt to requests for non-standard formats or SKU-based subsets of the company's full list of products. The flexibility to publish one edition of a catalog while work was already underway on the next edition was necessary, as was the capacity not only to generate a catalog quickly, but also to do so with a high degree of accuracy. Finally, the solution needed to make the QA process as painless as possible; and to make the process hassle-free from the perspective of Newark's customers.

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