In light of Wal-Mart’s recent Halloween faux pas – where the supermarket giant advertised party outfits for plus-size women as “Fat Girl Costumes” on its website – there’s certainly a lesson or two to be learnt by retailers when it comes to their online product data and tagging techniques.

The retailer’s choice of labelling, which it has since apologised for on the grounds that it was “unacceptable” and “never should have been on [the] site”, caused a social media outcry from offended customers. This, along with a similar incident from Target last year, underlines just how critical it is to avoid such a slip up.

The exact reason behind this PR disaster is unclear. What is clear is that Wal-Mart needs to take a long hard look at its online search and tagging function.

For a company as large as Wal-Mart, the sheer volume of data that its various channels generate is enough to give anyone a big data headache. Consequently, major retailers are increasingly reliant on systems that guarantee largely automated, optimised product data feeds for ecommerce.

Everything that people see and experience in the digital sales channels is generated on the basis of product data<>, so the quality of this data is key to success or failure in e-commerce. This means consistent, clearly structured product data should be the basis for every search result, every filter and findability in the right category.

However, product information alone does not describe shop items in enough detail to facilitate the accuracy of search online shoppers are now demanding. When it comes to implementing new marketing campaigns or making products findable under alternative terms, additional designations – or tags – help to assign certain items to relevant search terms. This also makes it easier to find products with technical, unspecific names. Tags are of particular advantage for large product lines. With each product data import, new products are assigned to the relevant additional tags with predefined rules. If the Wal-Mart faux pas wasn’t down to human error, at some point its ecommerce search function put two and two together and made five, making a connection that logically might have made sense, but lacked sensitivity… and sophistication.

And therein perhaps lies the problem. No matter how accurate and efficient a retailer’s search technology is, if it doesn’t incorporate the necessary sensitivity and sophistication, it could miss key nuances and deter shoppers rather than attract them.


By Caroline Hey, International Business Director at FACT-Finder

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