Choosing Product Codes or Item Numbers
If you’re building your first ecommerce site, the idea of choosing a convention for your product codes may seem like a trivial task. After all, the product code is typically something that is primarily internal to your business, so what difference does the format make to your customers? The answer is, probably none. But it could make a huge difference on how you manage your stock, your customer service, your sales, and your marketing.
One of the first considerations is whether your shopping cart builds URLs based on your product codes. For example, Miva Merchant’s default urls to product pages contain the product code as part of the querystring. Consider this example:
Note the last part of the URL – “ABC123”. That is the code for our hypothetical product. Now, consider what the URL might look like if you employ URL-rewriting strategies as part of your SEO work:
Although SEO experts still heavily debate the benefit of having keywords in your URLs, you can see how replacing “ABC123” with a keyword-based product code, such as “coiled-garden-hose” could give you a search engine boost!
That’s how we started life with our toy store WonderBrains. Our product codes included “4-childrens-card-games”,”magnetic-poetry-original-kit”, and other keyword-based product codes along those same lines. This gave WonderBrains a search engine boost at the time (and I feel they still have some positive effect now). However, we quickly ran up against filename limits. Miva Merchant supports 50 characters for its product codes, but QuickBooks only supports 31. That caused some issues when we tried to synchronize inventory levels between the two systems, because Quickbooks truncated any product codes longer than 31 characters. Later, we introduced Photoshop actions to batch-process images, and discovered a 27-character limit when saving files (until we discovered the value of unchecking the Mac OS compatibility flag).
Another consideration we had was the fact that we wanted to introduce a catalog in 2008. That meant phone orders. It didn’t make sense for customers to call in and ask to order item “calico dash critters dash deluxe dash village dash house”! This was another justification for shorter product codes. We decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and change the product codes on over 2000 items.
We settled on a format consisting of a two-letter prefix followed by 6 digits. The two characters uniquely represent a vendor. Putting these first allow us to sort our picklist by product code, and end up with a picklist where items from each vendor are grouped together (based on that 2-letter prefix). Since our warehouse is organized by vendor, that made picking items much quicker – an immediate payoff. The new format also solved the problem of synchronizing inventory levels between Miva Merchant and Quickbooks, and we switched to Easy Inventory Update to make that task go a lot smoother. The new format will also allow customers to more easily order an item by phone when the catalog is released later this year.
Whatever format you choose, there can be a lot of effects down the road among the various systems you will need to run your business. Consider not only your shopping cart, but also your fulfillment software, your CRM package, your customer needs, your warehouse, or anything else that could be affected by the format. It’s easiest to get it right the first time, then it is to change it after your catalog has grown to a large size and your site has taken a firm hold in the search engines!