Challenges and User Recommendations for a Global Trading Solutions Provider on a Roll
Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: August 2006
Despite all the upbeat news and momentum (on top of the vendor's indisputable aggregated brain power and experience), it would be nave not to acknowledge some challenges for TradeStone Software, Inc. (http://www.tradestonesoftware.com), the provider of collaborative e-sourcing solutions for Global 2000 companies. After all, it is still a reborn fledgling company with a nascent client roster, and with many product enhancements and improvements still outstanding (such as providing multi-language screens). Furthermore, some nitpickers and "software snobs" judge the vanilla user interface (UI) to be not exactly the "snazziest one on earth."
Part Five of the series Collaborative Sourcing Solution Vendor Leaves No Stone Unturned.
For information on TradeStone's history, see Collaborative Sourcing Solution Vendor Leaves No Stone Unturned. Also see Well-designed Solution for Sourcing: Its Technological Foundation and How It Works, Web-based Solution Steps Out for Cohesive Retailer Sourcing, and The Future for an E-Sourcing Solutions Builder.
Moreover, the vendor lacks name recognition. In fact, the names of its individual executives may ring more bells (as far as credibility goes) in the target segment at this stage than TradeStone per se. Thus, many of its first "proof of concept" customers had to logically come from Inovis/QRS/RockPort defectors. Given that this pool of potential convert customers may still be a more fertile ground to cover than finding brand new accounts, this brings us back to Inovis and QRS (which both contain former RockPort products) as opportunities, but also potential challenges for TradeStone.
To make things even more convoluted, in 2004 Inovis International, Inc. (http://www.inovis.com), an electronic data interchange (EDI), business-to-business (B2B), and value-added network (VAN) connectivity specialist, acquired QRS (see Inovis Delves into PIM by Snatching QRS). The acquisition gave Inovis more wherewithal to compete in the B2B integration marketplace against competitors such as GXS, SPS Commerce, and Sterling Commerce (the combination of the QRS product catalog and its data synchronization with the Inovis VAN and managed services provided a more comprehensive B2B integration and collaborative commerce platform), and more financial viability for QRS. However, many existing retailer clients still have questions about the strategic direction of QRS' legacy sourcing application. In fact, QRS had discontinued new sourcing product development even prior to the merger. This led to RockBlocks author Sue Welch's consequent founding of TradeStone, with the subsequent exodus of former Rockport/QRS staff from QRS (and subsequently from Inovis).
While global sourcing and importing was only a minor portion of QRS revenue, these clients represented some of the most prominent retailer brands in the world, such as Sears, Federated, Dillards, Saks, and Home Depot, some of which have meanwhile moved to TradeStone, while the others have looked at a new solution going forward. To be fair, Inovis Sourcing (formerly QRS Sourcing and RockBlocks) is a suite of web-based software applications designed to enable customers to improve various capacities:
- Collaborative Sourcing and Supply (this module manages product definitions, price quote requests, and quote responses; it provides automatic costing and global normalization of time and price values; it tracks components, origins, value, and demand for bill of materials [BOMs]; and it identifies potential suppliers based on user-defined criteria)
- Financial Order Management (this module generates orders after comparing demand against inventory; it notifies users of letter-of-credit requirements; it tracks vendor delivery performance against the original order; it generates invoices based on order information; it transmits and receives payment activity with banks, auditing the payments against the orders; and it reconciles estimated versus actual landed costs at the style, shipment, and component levels)
- International Logistics and Customs Management (this module provides global shipment track-and-trace capability by original order, item, or stock-keeping unit [SKU]; it generates vendor or shipment booking based on a commercial invoice; it manages shipment consolidation and deconsolidation processes, allowing for multiple origins and destinations; it generates, collects, and tracks international documentation; and it pre-classifies goods to expedite customs processing)
Competition from Tourtellotte Consulting
In other words, the Inovis suite makes it possible to order, manage, and track products manufactured overseas (by calculating costs, selecting suppliers, managing changes, and automating business processes, including purchase order management, letter of credit [LoC] management, and international shipment tracking), many of which resemble those of TradeStone, but without the development of any sourcing functionality or technology enhancements in the last few years by QRS or Inovis. While Inovis has tried to handle this disconcerted and grouchy customer base very delicately, by collaborating with them on a desired roadmap and by confirming ongoing sourcing support, enhancing the highly customized code built on an old architecture has proven to be a colossal challenge.
Given that these very same clients represent a major revenue opportunity (from cross-selling them B2B integration products—and conversely, from selling sourcing to a vast B2B integration clientele), early in 2005 Inovis announced the sale of its sourcing solution to Tourtellotte Consulting (http://www.tci9.com), a software development consulting company. With this sale, Tourtellotte has been providing ongoing development, implementation, and customer-specific professional services and support for Inovis Sourcing, now re-branded back to RockBlocks. The Tourtellotte team has been led by Cindy DiTullio, a senior partner with Tourtellotte Consulting, and a former Rockport/QRS employee, who has worked with the product and its customers for over six years.
Currently, there are a handful of renowned sourcing customers that are still live on RockBlocks, and the plan is to try to entice them to give their maintenance dollars to Tourtellotte. In this role, Tourtellotte has been providing first-line support, managing any bug fixes, and providing one-off, professional services to these customers.
As a result, TradeStone has been (subtly or aggressively) making an offer to its remaining former RockPort clients: a cost-effective, modern solution that will leverage their current investment in RockBlocks. It will also add the latest technological developments, such as embedded intelligence, event management, supplier enablement, and so on, thereby eliminating the inherent risks of a new implementation. More importantly, the vendor pledges to provide a true path forward that should progress sourcing operations of former RockPort clients through expanded functionality and supplier collaboration.
Still, given the potential for so much customization (owing to the likelihood of various best-of-breed niche applications or legacy products already in place at these customer sites), even if TradeStone lands some of these customers, it will take much effort to support their current needs while smoothly migrating to TradeStone Suite over time (although TradeStone's familiarity with these prospects' businesses is assuring). It is of course not certain whether the current Tourtellotte clients will abandon the platform in favor of an alternative, rather than wait for new functionality. In fact, a bigger challenge might be the need of the likes of TradeStone to evangelize the value proposition of the unified buying process to conservative prospective customers. Most Inovis customers (about 20,000 of them) have not been sourcing customers, and it remains unclear why this critical task is still mostly performed in a pedestrian way by most companies, or why there are so few well-rounded solutions for it in the marketplace. Inovis' nemeses, GXS and Sterling, have at least attempted to spice up their connectivity offering via the value-adding respective acquisitions of HAHT Commerce and Yantra (see GXS Acquires HAHT Commerce for More Synchronized Retail B2B Data).
Possibly the biggest challenge remains an ongoing lack of awareness of the need for these applications. While many people have realized the power of e-commerce on the consumer side, there is still plenty of education to be conducted by all B2B e-commerce vendors, in order to prove how much leverage their applications can bring to corporations. Also, many retailers prefer to trust seasoned employees rather than software "black boxes," and they are typically slow to adopt new technology till they see proven results from their peers and from market leaders.
On the other hand, some leading retailers like Wal-Mart and Target tend to not invest in packaged applications tailored to their needs, since it could take away their competitive edge (their in-house-built trade secrets). Thus, recently TradeStone announced it had chosen Tourtellotte Solutions as an integration partner. The partnership brings together two companies with a strong history of providing technology and professional services to retailers, manufacturers, trading companies, and other organizations integral to the supply chain. Based on customer requirements, TradeStone will work with Tourtellotte to integrate the TradeStone Unified Buying solution suite into new customers' complex, multi-system environments. TradeStone and Tourtellotte make a point of saying they are to remain friendly competitors that are nonetheless excited about working together, where their offerings are complementary. Thanks to the agreement, TradeStone customers will have access to Tourtellotte's considerable systems integration expertise, while TradeStone will continue to deliver software innovation and development for its TradeStone Suite.
The market in which all global sourcing vendors operate is characterized by early adopters, and is rapidly evolving. A company of TradeStone's current stature, its holistic sourcing process approach notwithstanding, might not be able to maintain competitive position against current and potential competitors in the long term, especially against those with significantly greater financial resources, name recognition, and other resources. The market is competitive, rapidly evolving, and highly fragmented, and one can only expect the intensity of competition to increase in the future. The competition might come from in-house development efforts, consulting companies, other software companies, financial institutions, logistic companies, customs brokers, forwarders, or third-party development efforts. As user companies continue to embrace the value of broader sourcing and global trade management (GTM) solutions, all providers will be often looked upon to provide leadership and to add more value to the entire order lifecycle, including purchase order management, total landed cost modeling, insurance and claims, import and export compliance, security regulations, and more seamless integration of invoice reconciliation and trade financing systems.
There are a plethora of point solution providers that specialize in narrow areas. These areas include land cost calculation, retail product lifecycle management (PLM), visibility, collaboration, export compliance, trading document generation, hazardous material handling, supply chain management, production planning, lead times or inventory optimization, distribution order management (DOM), and more complete transportation management capabilities. See also Production Planning and Scheduling Software for the Textile Industry: Unknown Frontiers. This is just enough to muddle the message and nibble at the potential revenues of full-fledged retail sourcing players. For example, we could talk about GTM players such as TradeBeam, Vastera, and Kewill, and a number of vendors that are arguably more specialized in supply chain electronic management (SCEM), visibility, and shipment tracking or retail-centric transportation network visibility, such as Viewlocity, Descartes Systems, Oracle (via former G-Log), One Network, GT Nexus, Management Dynamics, Timogen, and so forth.
There are also a number of competitors with equally broad sourcing offerings, such as New Generation Computing (NGC, now part of American Software), whose e-SPS product provides web-enabled functionalities such as sourcing, work in process (WIP) tracking, production routing, product-development tracking, pre-production tracking, problem identification and collaboration, delivery-date projections, and production-related inquiries and reports. Also, AS/AP Apparel software from ASAP of Georgia Inc. manages accounting, customer service, sales order allocation, order configuration, screen printing and embroidery scheduling, material requirements planning (MRP), cut-order planning and scheduling, material utilization, production control and scheduling, piecework incentive payroll, statistical quality control, and other activities. Along similar order management and supply visibility lines are the offerings from Eqos, Jesta IS, ecVision, Global Sources, Infor RunTime, STYLEman, Logility, NSB Group, Oracle (via former Retek and G-Log), Intentia, 3i Infotech, and SAP.
Also, supply chain planning (SCP) vendors like i2 Technologies, Manugistics (now part of JDA Software), and Logility, as well as supply chain execution (SCE) vendors like Manhattan Associates, RedPrairie, HighJump, and SSA Global offer visibility and trading partner collaboration components to provide transparency of inventory, orders, and shipments across the entire trading network. Industry specialists like SupplyChainge offer a lead time optimizer application that helps manage excess raw material supplies (so that a retailer can avoid overproduction of seasonal merchandize and the typical painful associated markdowns), while SourceGo offers on-demand service to help companies find the right factories for their needs.
TradeStone will be quick to point to the fashion focus, comprehensiveness, and business process management/business intelligence (BPM/BI) enablement of its solution, but even its less well-rounded competitors will likely be able to horn into some enterprises and reduce the share of the account's wallet. While the generalist sourcing vendors like Ariba and Perfect Commerce might not have the apparel retail expertise of TradeStone, they could still cause the slowdown or postponement of some executive decisions. Additionally, given SAP's recent ecosystem push to recruit partners of "SAP Powered by NetWeaver" and "SAP Certified by NetWeaver" (see Multipurpose SAP NetWeaver), it may not be long before the giant partners with (or eventually acquires) some of the above providers, thus creating an entry barrier for the likes of TradeStone into its vast install base. The same can only be expected from Oracle, given its recent acquisition appetite (with the intent of rolling them into the Oracle Fusion platform).
TradeStone's intention is to tackle the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and consumer electronics industry next. That market is certainly well-inhabited and defended by a slew of products for sharing demand forecasts with suppliers, such as TradeBeam's CIM solution (formerly i-Supply), Infor SupplyWeb, QAD Supply Visualization (SV), weSupply, RiverOne (now part of i2), and Valdero. Still, although TradeStone is a relatively small company without the resources to market itself as loudly as many larger and better known vendors, its current high-profile customers should be a testament to the value that can be derived from a focused sourcing system. Also, word-of-mouth reference selling is possibly the cheapest form of marketing, and the best in the company's current lifecycle stage.
As enterprises move production or continue to source from remote places worldwide (to theoretically lower item costs), complexity is inevitably introduced into the supply chain, which often results in bloated multi-echelon inventories or lower customers service levels (in other words, higher stockout rates). The companies that need to manage intricate details of their goods movements across borders, including trade financing, regulatory compliance, the accompanying detailed documents, harmonized tariff schedule (HTS) coding, multi-modal carrier handling, brokers management, and so on, might want to look for a full-fledged global sourcing system that is also well-attuned to their particular industry.
As the potential advantages of global sourcing are often hampered by increased supply chain complexity and bloated lead times, they should investigate the way a unified buying process such as the one from TradeStone could help them in enabling supply network flexibility, visibility, and rapid reaction process. Visibility typically has a direct correlation on perfect order fill rate, which ultimately affects margin and profit. The way to fight price pressures and shrinking margins is not always to go for the cheapest remote suppliers, but to focus on quality and turnaround time. A unified buying process should also help retailers with balancing cost, flexibility, speed, and risk in their sourcing strategies. For instance, for products with predictable sales patterns that can be adequately replenished with longer lead times, it might make sense to go with lower-price suppliers from faraway regions. Conversely, when forecasts are more inconsistent, or when products have to move to market quickly, higher-price near-shore suppliers might be more beneficial. With today's quick fashion turnaround cycles, a couple of weeks of delay typically translates into the difference between fire sales at quite marked down prices, and profitable volume at full retail (initial markup [IMU]) price.
Opportunistic buying is one of the places where the TradeStone solution should excel, since there is often no time under these circumstances for buyers and suppliers to learn each other's business processes or to form a deep relationship. TradeStone has designed its software for this type of environment, in order to streamline international trade: it is fairly easy to use and straightforward; it does not require many process changes or disruptions; and it gets directly to the point of what the buyer needs—a quick order confirmation process and access to the status of the shipment. With a Web services-based architecture, this solution allows buyers to build on the infrastructure they already have in place, rather than to have to deploy a complex new system that most likely has at least some level of duplicate functionality.
Still, on a general note, the complexity and specialization of the global sourcing space makes it hard for any aspiring vendor to handle all the requirements of automating global e-business, and all of the above issues and requirements should be taken into account during a sourcing or GTM system selection, whether it is stand-alone or within a broader SCM framework. Therefore, owing to a still fragmented market, one should keep in mind that each package will have its own unique combination of features and components, and will require varying degrees of data input and updating by users. Customs duties and tariffs, as well as associated rates of exchange and transportation costs should be available in order to accurately calculate the total cost of goods, which requires a data model and integration at the product and item level between the sourcing system and the ERP system or order management, warehouse management, transportation, and other pertinent enterprise systems.
For an extensive discussion of global retail sourcing, see The Gain and Pain of Global Retail Sourcing, The Intricacies of Global Retail Sourcing, and The Fashion and Apparel Retailers' Conundrum.
This concludes the series Collaborative Sourcing Solution Vendor Leaves No Stone Unturned.