The industry should blame the bootleggers, not the technology, for stolen data.
Last month I examined the near paranoia that permeates the industry regarding a collective solution to more effectively and efficiently sharing data between trading partners. Experts in data management agree that a collective solution is essential for reducing costs, improving sales and slowing down the flow of aftermarket customers to OEM dealerships. Unfortunately, the experts are the only ones who agree.
I spoke about the Aftermarket Data Vision (ADV), and what I found most fascinating is the paranoia that sprung up around the project itself. Almost everyone had the idea that the initiative was being promoted (if not financed) by a competitor. The big assumed it benefited the small; the small just knew it was a big boy plot; manufacturers figured it was all for the resellers and resellers were sure it was a way the manufacturers were gigging them. What perfect symmetry.
As I thought through the nearly universal mistrust the Aftermarket Data Vision created, I realized I needed to talk with more people to understand it. And as I talked, a theme began to emerge. Everyone seemed to be in a protectionist mode.
I often refer to an old Irish folk tale I used to read to my son called "Stone Soup." Like many children's tales, its wisdom is simple but undeniable. The story is set during the Irish Potato Famine of 1849. It's a hard time. Families are starving. People are very mistrusting of others, taking care of their own first (sounds familiar).
Then, a stranger comes to town. He announces he can make delicious soup with only water and his magic stone. Nobody really believes him, but some figure what the heck, a little free soup would be good. He launches into an eloquent pitch about how good the soup will be with his magic stone. As an increasingly convinced crowd gathers to watch, he skillfully adds that if he just had an old bone or a piece of fat, how much better the soup would be. Someone produces a bone. He continues until he gets a bit of an onion, a carrot, a couple of potatoes, and so on until everyone sits down to eat the wonderful soup. And, in the end, they all agree that the stone is truly magic.
Again, the wisdom of the folk tale continues to astound. Speaking with many in the market and thinking about our shared predicament, I observed that our aftermarket community is not very different from the frightened members of that Irish town. We are fearful of what we don't understand and imagine that any change might not be good for us individually — or it might even be used against us. It is the only way to explain that disappointingly widespread paranoia that the ADV has created.
Uncovering the fear
The fear seems to be about unauthorized access to one's data, a fear that is, by the way, not unfounded. I know of a reseller who, after purchasing a line directly from China, contacted his electronic catalog provider and requested that he "load" the North American supplier's data for him to use to sell the line, even though he no longer purchased from the supplier!
I can certainly understand the rise of paranoia by manufacturers when confronted with this sort of behavior. The audacity of a customer buying from someone else, then using your intellectual property to sell against you is comparable to those scenes in old westerns where the desperado asks the shop keeper to see a gun for sale and then uses it to rob him.
But as outrageous as that is, it's not the point. Technology is not what creates larcenous behavior. The existence of digital technology didn't create music and movie piracy. Pirates did. While digital technology made it easier to copy music and movies, it's bad people who engage larcenously in the practice. Standing in the way of CD and DVD burners is no way to combat the problem. The fact is that anyone with a desire to steal can and will steal.
The same is true in our industry. Obstructing a better method of gathering, synchronizing and distributing data is no way to deal with those who would steal application and attribute data. Anyone who has the desire to steal any manufacturer's data needs only a compliant party at any WD or jobber who carries the line and a 19-cent blank CD and they can have a robust data file in mere seconds.
The issues should be about how we can protect our intellectual property from unauthorized use without stifling efforts to make legitimate and authorized data sharing easier.
Amazon is regularly "scraped" by smaller e-tailers. That term is used to describe the piratical practice of mass copying images, product descriptions and other information that Amazon has collected and created. Amazon's response has been to deal with the thieves, not withhold information and images that help them sell products. To remove content would be the equivalent of a retail store locking the doors to prevent shoplifting. It's effective at stopping the shoplifters, but it doesn't do much for sales.
Yet some are approaching data distribution in the aftermarket in that manner. They seem to think it is smart to build a big vault around their data that makes it relatively more difficult for customers to get to. I think it makes more sense to make it easy for customers to get the data and to aggressively go after any unscrupulous pirate who steals it.
At the Aftermarket eForum this month, Tony Lupo and Sarah Bruno from the law firm of Fox Arnet are making a presentation entitled "Intellectual Property Issues of IT — A Primer on Topics that Should Keep You Up at Night." Their intent is to teach us how to safeguard our intellectual property and assets. I know I will be there taking copious notes because that is the root of the data issue in the aftermarket. We need a full frontal assault on illegal users of intellectual property, not on a better way to distribute it.
So in the interest of clarity, I suppose it's time again to try to clear the air and explain what the Aftermarket Data Vision initiative is all about.
My new approach is to call it a "standard for synchronizing and securely sharing data between trading partners." Standards like PIES (Product Information Exchange Standard) and ACES (Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association Catalog Enhanced Standard) are enjoying a reasonable level of acceptance among aftermarket practitioners. While the actual level of adoption is less than desirable, no one thinks that the data standards are the work of Satan and that adopting them will spell ruin for his enterprise.
Data is relatively useless unless or until it is shared. When a supplier can provide its channel partners with a robust set of weights, measures, sizes, prices, case quantities, minimum order quantities, etc. in a standardized format, both of them are able to do business more efficiently. The next step is to create a method for distributing that data securely and synchronizing and validating its exchange. That's what the ADV is trying to do.
In the broader business environment (meaning beyond the aftermarket) there are scores of data pools, data warehouses and data utilities that allow channel partners to securely share and synchronize data. The electrical industry has one, the hardware industry has one, the building material industry has one, as do countless other consumer goods segments who each have one. Business people of all industries are awakening to the fact that when they have accurate data that is in sync with their trading partners, there are endless opportunities to automate and realize cost savings.
The key to that previous statement is the part about data being "in sync." Most resellers only load data into their computer system when they add a part to their offering. Few have any ongoing process or discipline to update or refresh the data relating to that part. As such, the data that was loaded into the reseller's system when the part was added eventually begins to "spoil." By that I mean something about the product, either its physical attributes (the size of the box, its material composition, its minimum order quantity) or its application (what make, model or year it fits) changes. Since there are few events that cause a reseller to revisit the data (other than perhaps a part number supersession) those changes to the parts data are not updated in the reseller's computer system. Hence, it becomes dated and incorrect over time by omission.
One of the great services that an aftermarket data distribution standard could provide is a means to verify and update data sets between the supplier and the seller, or what is referred to as data synchronization. Again, such services are becoming increasingly common in other industries very similar to our own. And whether we accept it or not, it is what this aftermarket needs.
At the risk of being annoying, I will repeat what has become a near mantra for me: the aftermarket must awaken to the burning need we have to get full and rich data to our point of sales systems faster and more accurately. Our collective survival quite literally depends on it. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, most traditional aftermarket practitioners are losing share to their more data-savvy counterparts, especially the original equipment dealer. That degradation of market share will continue until we get over our petty concerns that "somebody might be getting a slightly better deal than I am," and just do it.
The time is now
The Aftermarket Data Vision group is entering a critical phase. A study commissioned by the ADV will report out at the Aftermarket eForum this month. The study has been a long time coming. Too long, in fact. The consultant commissioned to do the project contends that the level of interest and cooperation of the aftermarket community to participate in his surveys and focus groups has been abysmal. If true, that, too, is a sad commentary on our industry and our attitude about the role of technology. If the delays relate to the performance of the consultant, that is a tragedy. This initiative is frail enough and needs little help to send it over the proverbial cliff in flames.
The reasons for the tardiness of the study notwithstanding, the industry will need to review and evaluate its findings and ultimately do something. Inaction, incredulity and trepidation will not create a better way to syndicate aftermarket data, and unless we do, the haves will continue to rob from the have-nots.
Bob Moore is president of Bob Moore & Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in the automotive aftermarket. Moore can be reached at [email protected]