A Distributor's Guide to Sourcing Product Content

by Craig Lewis

Establishing a successful and profitable eCommerce channel is a monumental undertaking for any organization, regardless of industry. This is especially true for independent distributors, most of whom do not have the luxury of dedicating teams of people to this new eCommerce business. The reality is that distributors will need to rely on existing resources to contribute some of their time to things like SEO, digital marketing, or acquiring/building/organizing product content. Sound familiar? Those of you who are already in the eCommerce game are nodding in agreement, at least when it comes to product content, as that is the most common pain point for any digital transformation.

So, why is product content such an obstacle for independent distributors? Aside from the previously mentioned lack of resources, the root of the problem lies within the source of the content itself.The rest of this article is going to focus specifically on the topic of acquiring product content and why it's so hard to do independently, as well as some much more viable content sourcing approaches to consider.

Acquiring Content Direct From Suppliers

In a perfect world, this would be everyone's preferred method. It's simple, right? Just pick up the phone and call your guy down at ABC Manufacturing and tell him you need data so you can start selling their SKUs online.

What could go wrong? Literally everything! Here are some things to consider:

  • Manufacturers are not flexible with their product data. Typically it is provided in one standard format (most often Excel files) and it's up to the individual distributors to manipulate the data to meet their own needs.
  • Some manufacturers may offer very robust product content, complete with images, data sheets, detailed descriptions, and even videos. A majority, however, only offer the bare minimum, and the distributor is left to fill in the gaps.
  • Product attributes and their units of measure are extremely inconsistent from one vendor to the next. For example, the attribute "Inches" likely will vary widely: In, IN, ", In., etc. Attribute normalization is painstakingly time consuming and virtually impossible to do manually, and without it, users will have a hard time finding the right product on your eCommerce site.
  • Product content inevitably changes over time. In order to compensate for these changes, distributors then have to go through the headaches described above time and time again.

Key Takeaways

  • Sourcing product content directly from suppliers is extremely time consuming. The amount of legwork that needs to be done just to acquire the data is enough to deter most distributors from even attempting this approach.
  • This approach is not scalable, especially given the limited resources most independent distributors have. Even if you develop a fine-tuned, repeatable process, you will not be able to keep up with ever-changing product content from vendors. Oh, and not mention the impossibility of expanding your online offering.
  • While this approach does afford the opportunity to access free data from manufacturers, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the most cost-efficient. In most cases, the cost of man hours needed to source content internally will greatly outweigh the benefit of saving money on the data itself.

Alternative Approaches to Sourcing Product Content

Fortunately, it's not all bad news for distributors, as there are a few much more viable options out there:

Subscribe to a Product Content Service Provider

Let's just start off by saying that this is by and large the best option for an independent distributor who is looking for a cost-effective way to acquire product content. To clarify, however, we are not claiming that these types of services will provide flawless product content. It is the path of least resistance, plain and simple. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Manufacturers are much more likely to comply with a single entity's product content requests. Not only does this promote better quality content, it also establishes ongoing feeds for content updates.
  • Content providers are content professionals. They employ teams of experts who do nothing but massage data and enrich content for the purpose of reselling.
  • In some cases, the provider even includes its subscribers as part of content quality workflows. Read about how Affiliated Distributors leverages the expertise of its members as part of its unique eContent Services offering.
  • This approach to content sourcing can be pricey, nobody is denying that. However, investing in product content is arguably the smartest investment a distributor can make, as it greatly reduces the need for additional dedicated resources internally.

To be clear, these product content providers are doing just that - providing content. Once it is in the hands of the distributor, it is up to them to transform the data to meet their unique business requirements. This can be a significant challenge in itself, and happens to be an area of expertise for Sitation. Check out some of our capabilities here.

Implement a Vendor Portal

Each independent distribution business is unique and each has its own complexities. So while it's true that acquiring product content through a third party provider is the preferred method, it is not the only option, and in fact may not be the right fit for each business. Those seeking alternative routes to product content acquisition may want to consider implementing a vendor portal.

A vendor portal program acts as a pipeline from the supplier directly to the distributor's system(s) of record e.g. ERP, PIM, etc. By leveraging this technology, the distributor can establish its own set of parameters and the suppliers would then have to abide by these standards when submitting product content to the portal. Here are a few additional benefits associated with vendor portals:

  • As previously mentioned, product content service providers do not offer flawless content. With a vendor portal, distributors have the opportunity to review incoming "raw" data from the supplier. This should help ensure quality and accuracy within the data.
  • Content subscription services may not offer enriched content for the SKUs/brands/suppliers that your business sells (or even thrives on). A vendor portal affords distributors the opportunity to source content for their unique product offering.

If a vendor portal seems like a viable option for your product content needs, Sitation offers a unique vendor portal as part of its suite of digital merchandising tools. Our vendor portal is agile enough to fit into any technology stack and can be configured to meet your business' exact needs.

Hybrid Approach

By now it should be apparent that there are pros and cons associated with each content sourcing method, and there is no such thing as a prescribed formula for success. A solid product content strategy would actually take advantage of both of the approaches described in this article.

Subscribing to a content provider is a great way to gain access to a vast amount of data and is certainly worth the spend, but that doesn't mean that there won't be gaps to fill and additional data massaging to be done. A vendor portal would help fill some of those gaps, and could also help distributors think more critically about how they want to structure the incoming product content.

Combining the two approaches can really be a differentiator for independent distributors who are trying to grow their digital channels. Of course, this is going to require some investment, but keep this in mind: product content is NOT where you should be looking to cut costs. The golden rule of content: "Garbage In = Garbage Out". Many distributors are guilty of trying to save a few bucks on content, and it shows on their digital channels. Bad content makes for a bad customer experience, and that is hugely detrimental to channel growth.


At Sitation, we're more than just a software provider - we offer a wide variety of digital merchandising services. Whether it be taxonomy, product content, site search, or SEO, Sitation has something for your unique needs. Email us today, schedule a demo here, or visit our website, www.sitation.com to learn more!

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