How many companies do you know have had a great product, but you could never find it on the store shelf? Was it a favorite soft drink or beverage? A magazine? Or an electronic gadget?

Do you remember the frustration you felt at not finding what you wanted? What did you do? Chances are, you went to another store or you bought a different product.

Retailers know it’s much less expensive to keep a customer than attract a new one. So how can we, as vendors, support them upstream from the upper end of the sales chain? What are the things that we can do to help them?

Customer loyalty and customer “preference” do not just happen – they are “groomed” and “earned”. In today’s business environment, many cusxtomers will happily pay marginally more if it is consistently smooth, easy and efficient to do business with a company.

Good products create customer loyalty. Good business practices create repeat customers. And one of the most overlooked good business practices is that of ensuring that customers have not only the right product, but also the right product information at their fingertips to make a purchase decision.

In the automotive aftermarket, product information is viewed by some as paramount to product quality. If a counterman or a customer cannot determine which part to buy for a vehicle repair or restoration, they are likely to look elsewhere. And, if the reseller actually has the proper part, but doesn’t have complete product information from the vendor, it is only going to take a few lost sales in that product category before the reseller stops stocking those parts. And, maybe, stops dealing with that supplier.

In today’s aftermarket – with its proliferation of products and parts — information is king. Forward-thinking manufacturers are beginning to realize that they are as much in the information business as they are in the parts business. First-to-market strategies have long been deployed as a means to optimize price, value, turns and profit in the parts business. Likewise, first to market with the correct fitment information, product images and details, descriptions, and dimensions also provides a competitive edge.

In this age of the Internet and e-commerce, a great deal of attention is placed on search engine optimization to ensure that a website gets a top ranking so it is likely to be the first visited for a particular product or service. The strategy most companies use to get these top rankings is by providing more and more keywords or phrases relevant to their product or offering.

In the world of aftermarket customer service, this also rings true. When searching online systems for a part, either by vehicle application or by dimensions or other attributes, the first products to come up on the list are those with the most information to meet and match the search criteria.

Therefore, suppliers who provide the most information about their products to resellers are those whose products are most likely to be the “right part at the right place at the right time.” That is a strong value proposition to the supplier who, by virtue of a solid product information management process and system, is able to deliver the kind of quality information in a timely manner to resellers and consumers.

This has been a strategy used in the OEM world to ensure that ‘rogue buying’ does not occur among a manufacturer’s dealers and distributors. By ensuring that quality and complete product information is available in business systems, e-Catalogs, parts books and other media, “availability” might trump “price” and other differentiators and win the sale because dealers have easy access to the correct and complete product information. This strategy, from the manufacturer’s perspective, is called, ‘creating a disciplined preference’. In the aftermarket, we call it ‘being the preferred vendor’. We sometimes see this when jobbers default to an OEM dealer for a part.

Some may disagree with this premise, arguing that original equipment manufacturers have proprietary access to product information – but that is partially true. Certainly, automakers do everything to protect their proprietary information and to discourage an ‘aftermarket’, but that has to do primarily with engineering and application information. Once a part is being manufactured and sold in the aftermarket, however, how many these aftermarket manufacturers are adopting the OEM principles of creating a disciplined preference for their brand through quality product information?

One of the best means to solve this conundrum is to adopt the principles of PIM – or product information management. A robust, end-to-end PIM solution allows manufacturers to simplify and centralize their product and part information they are already generating on paper and storing in spreadsheets and a multitude of small databases. They can consolidate all of this information into one system which will enable the rapid and accurate communication of product information to their resellers and their customers, as well as to business and transactional (ERP/MRP) systems and to e-Catalogs.

As a result, a PIM system becomes a strategic weapon in the manufacturer’s arsenal. It can allow the manufacturer’s reseller customers to compete more effectively, while helping the manufacturer optimize inventory turns, minimize returns, increase market share, reduce cost of sales, and improve top line revenues (and potentially profit margins). In this way, good product information enhances not only the buying experience, but also the profit potential of the manufacture and its resellers, while helping the manufacturer win preferred vendor status.

In short, the business practice of “good PIM” grooms and earns customer preference.