Software solutions provided via an exchange network over the Internet have been especially enticing to retailers and their suppliers. About five years ago, we witnessed the emergence of the Worldwide Retail Exchange (WWRE). Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia (US), this Internet-based, business-to-business (B2B), retailer e-marketplace was founded by a consortium of seventeen international retailers. The idea was to operate an independent company that would benefit its members through a common commitment to openness, leading edge technology, retail industry process efficiencies, and transaction information confidentiality. The perceived benefits included B2B standards setting, collaborative activities, value-added services, participation in a global networked community, shared technology investments, and business process formulation and standardization.
At about the same time, the Global NetXchange (GNX), headquartered in Chicago, Illinois (US) and with a significant presence in Europe, was founded by eight of the world's largest retailers. It provided a supply chain collaboration suite to connect retailers and manufacturers via a jointly developed, Web-enabled technology platform for the global retail community. The similarities of the GNX and WWRE business models and solutions were such that a meeting of the minds was inevitable. Thus, it comes as no surprise to learn that WWRE and GNX have come to terms for a merger.
As announced in April and finalized in mid-November 2005, GNX and WWRE have combined their complementary product sets and re-branded the companies as Agent for Retail Integration and Collaboration Solutions (Agentrics LLC). The company is aptly named given its background and desire to shed any reference to being solely a B2B exchange. Agentrics' vision is to leverage common capabilities for retail trading partners as clients, and to drive global practices and standards for information sharing and collaboration between retailers and manufacturers.
Today, Agentrics has close to 50 major retailers and over 250 suppliers as primary customers, as well as over 50,000 participating registered auctioning suppliers. Moreover, twenty-three global retail industry leaders have demonstrated their commitment to the shared platform by serving as board members and as equity owners. Agentrics' "sweet spot" is clearly the retail market and its trading partners that are willing to share a platform and its inherent efficiencies. A partial list of "anchor" clients include Sainsbury's, Safeway, Sears, CVS, Metro Group, Walgreens, Albertsons, Tesco, Carrefour, Kingfisher, Kroger, Colesmyer, SCA, and Groupe Casino.
The consolidated solution suite offers global sourcing and procurement, global supply chain collaboration, global data synchronization, and product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions to the retail industry via a subscription-based platform. Specific capabilities include
- Global sourcing
- On-line auctions
- Integrated sourcing
- Consortium buying
- Trading partner discovery
- Consulting and program management
- Global supply chain collaboration
- Promotions management
- Point of sale (POS) data exchange
- Three-tier collaborative planning, forecasting, and replenishment (CPFR)
- Supplier performance management
- Consulting and program management
- Global data synchronization
- Global data pooling of item data attributes
- Item data quality services and synchronization
- Consulting and program management
Product Lifecycle Management Tool Emerges as a Unique Opportunity
Partly due to its March 2004 acquisition of QSA Software, a UK-based retail industry supplier of new product development and introduction (NPDI) software, Agentrics is marketing a PLM solution for the retail private label niche. The ProductVine PLM solution enables retailers to secure brand integrity of their private (or "house") brand label goods throughout the PLM process, from introduction to retirement. Agentrics' initial sales and marketing strategy targets food and grocery retailers; examining opportunities in other retail subsegments is a lower priority. ProductVine's food and grocery-centric database was designed based on years of industry best practice experience and was engineered to facilitate the NPDI process. ProductVine includes project management, critical paths, workflow, and collaboration capabilities. It aims to fulfill the retail private label market's need to manage product information, such as product specifications, pack copy, compliance, regulatory, and supplier data. This market's requirements also include ideation management (i.e., strategic alignment), range and category briefing, product idea collation, test evaluations, issue management, and quality management for production and supplier audits.
Agentrics' global analysis of the retail private label market indicates that there is a varying degree of sophistication and tiering of private labels across mature, emerging, and immature markets around the globe. The bottom line is that while there is significant country by country variation in private label maturation, retail private labeling is growing and maturing across most territories, including larger Western European countries, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
The ProductVine solution portfolio was built according to the "stage gate" approach, where individual modules are engineered to work either together or independently. Its three-tier architecture, which includes project and category management (for marketing criteria management and market team use), product data management, and quality management (for non-conformance audits), can be used in different ways. For example, Marks and Spencer uses the project and category management capabilities extensively for private label category management, while Brinker International, a company with multiple restaurant brands like Chili's and On The Border, uses quality management functionalities to perform supplier non-conformance audits and to ensure brand integrity.
ProductVine's seven-stage, "stage gate" approach to the baseline time-to-market period is typical of the retail private label NPDI staging process. It includes
- Product brief and invitation to tender
- Testing and auditing
- Final decision and negotiations
- Design phase
- Print phase
- Launch phase
- Follow-up phase
The ProductVine solution is fully hosted on a Microsoft n-tier platform. Its pricing model is based on subscribers paying an annual fee based on their overall transaction volumes, the number of products and suppliers, and the number of modules utilized. More companies are experiencing ProductVine's capabilities firsthand as Agentrics is witnessing an increased level of customer adoption.
Agentrics' ProductVine is a PLM solution clearly designed for and targeted to private label retailers. The ongoing success and adoption of this software is dependent on several variables, both within and outside of Agentrics' control, including the ongoing participation level of retailers in a hosted collaboration platform, the actual versus anticipated maturation and growth of the private label market, the return on investment (ROI) reported by existing adopters of the technology, and the evolution of the product suite itself to meet current and future market needs. Traditional PLM vendors do not necessarily focus on the private label retail subsegment, nor do they necessarily offer a solution that is tailored for these niche requirements. Thus, Agentrics has relatively little direct PLM vendor competition, for now. Nonetheless, a lack of direct competition does not mean that there are no alternatives. Therefore, Agentrics needs to assume that competition is right around the corner and should define and develop deeper and stronger differentiators for its target market.
In the future, Agentrics may also want to try to transcend its designation as a specific private label retail solution. This will most likely be driven by opportunistic prospect scenarios coupled with the creative use of the stated capabilities of ProductVine. In conclusion, finding a new niche of prospective clients is always a good thing.