Why Retailer-Supplier Data Sharing Portals are Being Replaced by Collaborative Retail Intelligence Solutions

Following the lead of Walmart’s Retail Link, which debuted in the early 1990s, many large retailers have invested in capabilities to share POS and inventory data with their suppliers. And for good reason. In fact, the type of retailer-supplier collaboration underpinned by the open sharing of retail data is a key contributor to Walmart’s incredible growth and success in the retail market. For those still unclear as to the rationale and business case of such an initiative, please read this post.

But just as the frenzy of all things Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s eventually gave way to the rise of ‘Web 2.0’ with smarter web applications that give users relevant, targeted and interactive information, the lonely data-sharing supplier portal’s useful life has run its course. And for the vast majority of retailers who never got around to building such a custom portal for whatever reason, the phrase “so long, we hardly knew ye” springs to mind.

Retailer-supplier data sharing portals were a product of the original phase of the Internet revolution where the focus was about accessing information electronically that had previously been locked in internal systems and only available on paper. It was about electronicizing information and distributing it via a web browser. Much like the early pioneers of the web like AOL and Yahoo! who provided similarly named ‘portals’ as jumping off points to the massive number of websites that had been catalogued by their pages, these retailer-supplier data sharing portals are analogous starting points for suppliers accessing pre-organized information provided by the retailer.

Below is a screenshot of Yahoo!’s home page in 1996. While today’s web users might chuckle at the naïve attempt to neatly categorize and organize the content of the World Wide Web at the time, for those of us old enough to remember starting our web surfing from a page like this (or one from Excite, Alta Vista, or Lycos), this was helpful for web users. This was a portal onto a new world of content that had previously not been available electronically and having a guide like this was extremely valuable.

What’s most relevant for the purposes of this discussion is the “City Maps” link just below the search box near the top of the Yahoo! homepage. Clicking on that link took you to graphical maps of some (but not all) cities, maps that had previously only been available in those handy AAA guides stuffed in your car’s glove compartment.

Great, now you had an electronic version of what had previously only been available on paper. What could you do with it? As it turns out, not much. You could print it out and avoid the need to buy it at the gas station for your upcoming road trip. You could use that map as you used any other paper-based map in trying to navigate to your destination along the quickest possible route and avoid getting lost.

What you could not do, however, was enter in your destination and have the map automatically calculate the best route based on all manner of streaming data such as traffic, construction, toll-roads, speed limits, etc. And you certainly could not have this information available to you on your cellular phone. That kind of interactive, personalized, social and mobile functionality – the kind we use everyday with apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps or Waze – would not be seen until the Web 2.0 evolution of “City Maps” came along and quickly usurped the usefulness of simply providing downloadable electronic maps.

In many ways, retailer-supplier data sharing portals are similar to Yahoo! “City Maps” circa 1996. These retailer portals give product suppliers access to raw data that they previously had to get in printed form from their retail buyers at headquarters or from the store-level computers.

But in the same way that City Maps users were left with the problem of trying to figure out the answer to their question – ‘how do I get from point A to point B?’ – suppliers accessing the massive amounts of store-level POS and inventory data are still challenged to figure out the answer to their questions: ‘how is my new product performing?’ ‘Which stores are chronically out-of-stock and why?’ ‘What impact is my current marketing promotion having on my sales?’

These retailer-supplier data sharing portals provide suppliers with the raw inputs with which to run further calculations to make decisions – the names and directions of the roads on the map in the City Maps example – but suppliers are on their own getting to that next step of analysis. Sure, map users could triangulate the separate inputs of roads directions and speed limits and other reports of planned construction, for example, but the amount of time to calculate the fastest route with all available information would have left most mentally exhausted before their journey even began.

And so it is with retailer-supplier data sharing portals. Sure, suppliers can take the raw data as inputs to a planning or analytics process that involves significant spend on people, time and tools. And many do. But what happens all too often is that suppliers miss the opportunities hidden in this vast quantity of data because it’s just too hard or too time consuming or too expensive to look for them.

Thankfully, the B2B equivalent of Google Maps is finally here. Today’s retail intelligence platforms start with the valuable POS and inventory data and then supercharge it with analytics and mobile technology that makes the data interactive, relevant, personal, social and portable for suppliers. With this new breed of retail collaborative analytics applications, suppliers are now able to easily turn this data into tangible decisions and actions that address opportunities and challenges at store level to improve their and the retailer’s business.

It’s about giving suppliers information and tools to get to an insight and decision vs. just giving them the raw inputs and hoping they know what to do with them. Static maps and static retail data is better than no information at all. But interactive mobile GPS apps and big data retail analytics applications that actually get you where you want to be are two halves of the same coin. Both are part of the present and future of web technology, relegating the previous generation’s simple information publication applications to the dustbin of tech history.