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Do You See UCCnet?

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If you sell to any major retailer, you've probably already received letters informing you of mandates to become a member of UCCnet. This not-for-profit company is a subsidiary of the Uniform Code Council, the body responsible for assigning the company prefix used to generate a UPC code. UCCnet is a means by which suppliers and retailers can synchronize item-related data based on commonly agreed-upon industry standards. In this article, I'll explain how UCCnet works and what it takes to become UCCnet-compliant.

In the Beginning

The UCCnet initiative began in 1999, when a working group made up of grocery suppliers approached the Uniform Code Council. They were concerned with the number of errors they were experiencing related to the items their customers were ordering. These errors were affecting their bottom line in the form of customer charge-backs. The solution was to develop a registry where item data could be loaded once and shared by suppliers and customers. The result was UCCnet.

One common misconception is that UCCnet will somehow act as a replacement for existing electronic data interchange (EDI) technology. This is far from the truth. In fact, UCCnet will serve to improve existing EDI by ensuring that the item data being sent back and forth is correct. According to a report by A.T. Kearney, 30% of the item information in retailers' item catalogs is incorrect. With an estimated potential savings of $40 billion throughout the supply chain, UCCnet is an initiative that's not going away any time soon.

ROI? We Don't Need No Stinkin' ROI!

When you consider the $40 billion savings estimate, you may initially be ready to dive in and get your piece of the pie. Whether or not you actually achieve any cost savings can greatly depend on the nature of your business. If, for example, your company routinely introduces new items or makes changes to existing items, you can expect some payback by decreasing the amount of time it takes to get your new items on the shelf. You'll no longer have to wait for retailers to enter item information into their systems manually prior to ordering new items. If you deal with a large volume of charge-backs from retailers caused by bad item data, you can also expect to see some savings. If, on the other hand, you introduce only a handful of new items every year, you may never see any actual savings from this initiative. Regardless, the main motivator for implementing a UCCnet solution will probably be due to a customer mandate from retailers like Wal-Mart, Lowe's, or Home Depot.

Global Standards

Before retailers and suppliers were able to synchronize item data, a set of standards had to be defined to ensure that they were all speaking the same language. At the forefront of these standards is the Global Trade Item Number, or GTIN (pronounced gee-tin). The GTIN is a means by which a common item numbering system will be put in place that will encompass other numbering systems currently in place (UPC, I2 of 5, EAN, etc.). The GTIN is a 14-digit number that can contain these other numbers as part of a data structure. In the case of a Universal Product Code (UPC) , which is made up of 11 digits plus a check digit, two zeros are inserted to the left of the UPC number to fill out the 14 digits. For a European Article Number (EAN), a single zero is inserted to the left of the 12-digit EAN, which is followed by a check digit. An Interleaved 2 of 5 (I2of5) carton ID number can be used as is for the GTIN. This item can represent a case, pallet, inner pack, master pack, etc. In all of these cases, the fourteenth digit represents the check digit. Figure 1 below shows examples of how GTINs can be used for each pack level for an item.

Pack Level
GTIN
Description
Pk Ind.
Mfg. ID
Item #
Ck Dgt
Pallet
4
1234567
12345
X
Pallet of 2880 of Item 12345
Master Pack
2
1234567
12345
X
Master Pack of 144 of Item 12345
Case
1
1234567
12345
X
Case of 12 of Item 12345
Each
0
1234567
12345
X
A single each of Item 12345

Figure 1: This table shows examples of a GTIN at each pack level for the same item.

As this example shows, a single numbering system is used to represent all pack levels of an item. As you would expect, the data requirements vary based on the pack level.

UCCnet also uses globally defined product groups to categorize item data. These categories defined by the Universal Descriptor Exchange (UDEX) consist of a series of numbers and related descriptions that define item categories at three levels. Figure 2 shows an example of these categories.

Category
Description
34.0000.0000
COMPUTERS/GAME CONSOLES
34.0255.0000
COMPUTER NETWORK PRODUCTS
34.0255.1368 COMPUTER ROUTERS

Figure 2: This is a sample of the UDEX item category breakdown.

As this example shows, the first two positions of the code, in this case 34, are used to define the department, COMPUTERS/GAME CONSOLES. The next four digits define the category. In this example, 0255 represents COMPUTER NETWORK PRODUCTS. The final four digits identify the subcategory. Here, 1368 defines COMPUTER ROUTERS.

The UDEX category is just one of the elements required by UCCnet. The current production release of the UCCnet standards consists of 62 core elements used to define item attributes (weight, length, width, etc.). Within this standard, the data is defined using what UCCnet calls document type definition (DTD). Since these initial standards were created primarily for the grocery industry, UCCnet has had to make some additions to support other industries. The newer standards are defined using an XML Schema Definition (XSD). Within XSD, there are 151 common attributes, including 42 mandatory attributes. There are also extended industry-specific attributes. The hardlines industry, for example, which supplies major retailers like Lowe's, Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and Wal-Mart, has 50 extended attributes.

The Global Location Number (GLN) works hand in hand with the GTIN and is used to define both supply and demand organizations. The GLN itself can represent any location within a company. Each of the retailers listed above would fall under demand partners. Demand partners will define a GLN for each store location within their company. On the supply side, you could theoretically define a GLN for your main location and any distribution warehouses within your company. The GLN itself is made up of a 13-digit number whose thirteenth number is a check digit. The second through seventh are defined using your company's UCC manufacturer ID. The next five numbers are used to uniquely identify a specific location within your company.

Communicating with UCCnet

Data communications with UCCnet are generally handled using one of two methods: the GlobalPortal or the GlobalHub. The GlobalPortal uses a browser-based, UCCnet-hosted data entry utility called SynchPoint, which allows you to manually enter your item data and publish it to your trading partners. Work lists allow you to keep track of the entire process of publishing items and any related events such as customer authorization. The GlobalHub allows users to use machine-to-machine communications to synchronize item data. This method requires a software solution to take the item data from a back-end system, such as an ERP package, and transform this data into the proper XML format for UCCnet prior to transmitting the data via the AS2 communications protocol. The chart in Figure 3 gives a graphical representation of how UCCnet communications occur.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/uccnetV400.png

Figure 3: Demand and supply communications occur through the UCCnet Global Registry. (Click image to enlarge.)

When publishing item information to the Global Registry, you have the option of publishing the information either publicly, meaning that any retailer can have access to the information, or privately, publishing the information only to select trading partners identified by their GLN.

Summing Up the Cost

Several factors come into play when determining just how much it's going to cost you to become UCCnet-compliant. First and foremost is the cost of membership. The annual membership fee is based on your company's annual sales. A table of the current fee schedules can be found on the UCCnet Web site. These fees range from $100 to $400,000 per year. No matter what method you choose to use to send your data to UCCnet, this membership is a requirement.

After the membership fee, costs can vary greatly. If you decide that SynchPoint is the best way to get your item data synchronized, additional costs would be minimal but would probably require receiving some training through one of the approved alliance partners. Should you choose to go machine-to-machine, you could either develop your own software to convert your data into the XML message format required for UCCnet or purchase a solution from a certified alliance partner. If you develop your own solution, you will have to have the solution certified prior to sending any data to UCCnet. This process includes receiving required training prior to certification. The costs of a packaged solution can vary as well, depending on the solution you choose. I'll examine the different types of solutions a little later, but generally these costs can range from a few thousand dollars to over a hundred thousand.

In addition to the software costs, there can also be costs for consulting time to assist you in putting your UCCnet initiative in place.

When you take all of these factors into consideration, you can see that how much UCCnet will cost you can vary greatly, depending on how you choose to implement it.

Implementation Planning

The general process for becoming compliant with retailers' UCCnet mandates is fairly straightforward. Here are the basic steps required to get this initiative moving:

  • Join UCCnet--This part is the one absolute requirement.
  • Receive Training--This will help your organization get a more complete understanding of UCCnet.
  • Find a certified UCCnet alliance partner--A list is available from the UCCnet Web site.
  • Form a project team--This is not an IT initiative. Any part of your company that deals with new item setups needs to be involved.
  • Begin data cleansing--You need to make sure that your data is valid and complete and that it meets all UCCnet requirements.
  • Implementation--Along with your alliance partner, put your solution in place and begin to synchronize item data.

When looking at a process like this, it's important to remember that, while this initiative does require the involvement of your IT department to get a solution in place, UCCnet is not an IT project. UCCnet will completely change the way your company deals with item setups and therefore needs the support and involvement of any area within your organization that deals with item setups. Getting this support may be the most challenging part of your UCCnet project. Without this support, however, your project may be doomed to failure. For this reason, it's a good idea to get as many people as possible from any of these functional areas of your company involved in UCCnet training.

Perhaps the most important step listed above is data cleansing. If the data in your system is incorrect and you synchronize that bad data to your trading partners, you've completely defeated the purpose of UCCnet. A perfect example is a supplier that pays to have a certain amount of space on the retailer's shelf. Item dimensions determine how much of the product can fit on the shelf. One supplier found that the package dimensions were incorrect and that they were in fact paying for shelf space that was being used by their competition. The data cleansing process will also involve ensuring that you have all of the mandatory data attributes. You'll need to gather any missing information prior to synchronizing.

Alliance Partners

The term "alliance partner" has come to mean many different things. UCCnet alliance partners are companies that have been certified to assist suppliers and retailers with becoming UCCnet-compliant. This assistance can include software that stores, translates, and sends your data to UCCnet. It can also include training and consulting services.

For storing and sending your data to UCCnet, you have several options. The lowest-end solutions will take a supplied data file (CSV, Excel, flat text file, etc.), translate the data into the required XML format, and send the data to UCCnet. This type of solution can be cost-effective on the surface, but it will require more of your IT resources to determine how to get the data from your back-end system into the required data file. In addition to that, you may have to modify your existing item database to support attributes not currently available. The next type of solution available would be hosted service providers. These companies act like an EDI VAN in that they will take your data, again in a spreadsheet or text file, and handle the translation and sending to UCCnet. Again, this type of solution will require more work from your IT staff to get the data into the correct format. The third group of solutions includes software offerings from companies such as LANSA, webMethods, and EXTOL, which give you a fully integrated UCCnet solution. This type of package integrates to your back-end database and allows you to store any attributes not available in your back-end system in a local item catalog. Specifically, LANSA's UCCnet Direct solution runs on the iSeries and offers users a full item catalog that can be integrated with other databases on and off of the iSeries. This solution also includes a workflow component that can be used to track the process of an item setup within your company. In addition to giving you fields to store the additional attributes required by UCCnet, this solution will also allow you to store additional non-UCCnet information within this item catalog. You can also create links from an item to external documents like image files or spec sheets. While this type of solution does carry a higher price tag than some of the lower-end solutions, these packages give you some value-added features that may be a means by which to justify the costs. For example, most of the software solutions include some sort of AS2 communications component to transmit the data to UCCnet. In some cases, this component can also be used to send and receive EDI data via the Internet (EDI INT). Additionally, some packages give you item catalog components that can be used for applications outside of UCCnet as well. When considering which type of solution is right for your company, it's important to remember that this initiative will ultimately influence the way that you do item setups.

Change Is the Only Constant

The standards are constantly changing to keep pace with the marketplace. In upcoming releases of these standards, item pricing will become a component of the data. Keep this in mind when deciding on a software solution. If the application is inflexible and doesn't allow you to keep up with standard changes, you may find yourself looking for a new solution down the road.

It's also important to remember that UCCnet is a precursor to other initiatives, such as Collaborative Planning, Forecasting and Replenishment (CPFR) as well as the much-touted Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Without common item data, neither of these initiatives is possible.

Mike Faust is the IT Manager for The Lehigh Group in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Special thanks to Bill Hood and Alan Christensen from LANSA for their input on this article. Check out Mike's books The iSeries and AS/400 Programmer's Guide to Cool Things and Active Server Pages Primer from MC Press. You can contact Mike at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Mike Faust

Mike Faust is a senior consultant/analyst for Retail Technologies Corporation in Orlando, Florida. Mike is also the author of the books Active Server Pages Primer, The iSeries and AS/400 Programmer's Guide to Cool Things, JavaScript for the Business Developer, and SQL Built-in Functions and Stored Procedures. You can contact Mike at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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