Catalog product

The trade catalog is broken

Have you ever received an advertisement from a brand to “buy the look”, only to click through and find that the process takes a lot more effort than expected? What should be a simple click is often just browsing through styles, colors, and sizes until you can find the look yourself. That’s even if you go that far.

This frustrating user experience is all too common on commerce sites. A landing page is not a stylized shopping experience. A site’s filters don’t allow you to sort accurately by size, sale, and other factors. These types of mismatched experiences lead to high bounce rates, or even the loss of a potential sale to a competitor.

Much of this misalignment has a common culprit: the trade catalog. Typically, a commerce platform imposes a rigid catalog structure on a brand, so the merchandiser is forced to conform to what the technology dictates.

Today’s commerce experiences require a much more flexible approach than is available with legacy commerce catalogs. As new shopping channels and new media emerge – from live streaming to the metaverse – merchants don’t have time to wrestle with rigid hierarchies. Let’s see what’s wrong with the trade catalog and how to fix it.

Work around legacy systems

Today, most commercial catalogs are designed to support structures based on legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. In fact, many organizations still create their product catalog by pushing the structure directly out of their ERP. These systems treat the business catalog as a tightly coupled, rigid, and structured means of displaying information based on internal business processes.

To circumvent this structure, organizations have created workarounds, complex integrations, data replication, and other strategies to accommodate modern shopping patterns. When an organization wants to change their product experiences based on a new offer, flash sale, or any type of merchandising change, all of these workarounds need to be considered. This causes a delay in delivering these new experiences to customers (often measured in days), affecting a brand’s ability to generate revenue.

This isn’t just a problem for merchandisers in the examples of “shopping the look” or poor categorization given above. It’s also a problem for branded manufacturers who sell in B2B channels. One of the main challenges of B2B commerce applications is that each customer has their own price contract negotiated with the brand manufacturer.

Second, the commerce platform’s catalog, along with its integrated ERP, often fails to support negotiated contract pricing in the B2B use case. Therefore, developers must create complex custom solutions to meet these needs or implement a punch-out system that connects directly to their ERP system, where they maintain separate catalogs for each customer. Meanwhile, these developers fear the day when they will have to change the prices of a thousand unique catalogs in their ERP system.

Breaking down the trade catalog

Rather than creating such complex workarounds, there is a fundamentally different way to handle these commerce catalog challenges. The best approach is to break down the commerce catalog into components by decoupling the products from the catalog. This way, each component in the catalog can be isolated into its own set of separately managed microservices.

For the “shop the look” example above, a brand could manage this process with a microservices-based catalog by marketing individual SKUs separate from their parent product. With the ability to work with each individual component of the catalog separately, merchandisers can easily compose the experiences they want for their targeted customers, without IT intervention.

Adaptable architectures based on microservices are not only useful in commerce. They are used in most modern cloud-native software applications across industries. Essentially, any industry that wants to move faster and adapt to change benefits from this approach to software development.

So why should sales teams struggle with a legacy catalog structure that prevents them from marketing the moments they want? It’s time to break down those rigid, hierarchical structures of the late 1990s to early 2000s and embrace the flexibility of modern microservices in commerce. Your customers (and cart conversion rates) will thank you.


Bryan House is senior vice president of product and customer success at Elastic path, where he leads the UX, Product Management, Enablement and Customer Success teams. Previously, House was Chief Commercial Officer at Neural Magic, a deep learning software startup where he led Product, GTM and Customer Success. A member of the founding team of Acquia, he helped the company achieve more than $170 million in revenue. His expertise covers digital commerce, machine learning, digital experience platforms and open source technology.