Over on Spend Matters, the prophet and the maverick recently co-authored a post that asked Do Catalogs Serve Suppliers or Buyers More?. The answer varied depending upon the (age of the) platform, the implementation, the intent, and the author, but the simple answer — which did not really come through loud and clear in their post(s) — is not who they are supposed to serve. Especially if it’s a first generation catalog.
We’ll take first generation catalogs first.
A first generation catalog is nothing more than an electronic version of a paper catalogue — and when you are in a rush to find and order a product, how good is that? With a paper catalogue, you flip to the index, hope the keywords you can think of are there, and hope the product on the page you flip to will do the job at a decent price. With an e-catalog, you are scanning through a keyword index or searching keywords and hoping the right product at the right price comes up. Not that useful, whether you are the buyer (who may or may not find what you want) or the supplier (who may or may not have their product found and requisitioned), especially when the buyer has to search each catalogue separately and will stop when the find the first acceptable product (which could be in another supplier’s catalog).
A second generation catalog is a bit better as it indexes all text, allows all supplier catalogs to be searched simultaneously, allows side-by-side comparison, single cart, and automatic PO splits across suppliers when a requisition is approved. But it’s still not perfect. The product might not be there. It might be out of stock. The price might not be right — or there may be no capability to communicate with the supplier for clarification on important details. The buyer is not served, and the supplier is not served.
Third generation catalogs are much better, and were supposed to solve the issues as they also allow punch-outs; real-time federated search across internal, supplier, and punch-out catalogs; communication; RFX; preferred and contract items to be weighted or forced to the top of the listing; budget integration; and visual guilt features, to make sure a buyer buys what should be bought when and how it should be bought. This helps Procurement help buyers buy on-contract items on-contract and steer purchases to preferred suppliers. And it helps suppliers because they know if they have a contract or are preferred, buyers will be guided to them.
But it doesn’t serve either party if the need isn’t served by an on-contract item in stock at a preferred supplier, because the buy might not be appropriate for catalogs in the first place. If the buyer buys an overpriced item via punch-out, that doesn’t help Procurement. And if the buyer buys the wrong product from the supplier when there was a better one, the supplier gets a bad rap and may not be bought from again.
The problem is catalogs, like GPOs, are presented as the be-all, end-all tail-spend management solution when, in reality, tail spend (as pointed out in Sourcing Innovation’s recent paper on An Introduction to Tail Spend — and why you need a technology-based solution, tail-spend is a very complex beast that is often only suitably served by a mix of catalog, RFX, and auction buys, often optimization-backed, with the solution varying with market conditions and particularities of the need.
And a catalog will never tell you when it is the right — or wrong solution. So unless it’s only a part of a full tail-spend suite, with expert guidance (via expert programmed workflows), it won’t even come close to serving either party. Remember that before buying a “new and improved” e-Catalog solution.