Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Numbering Systems, or What to Do When There's Nothing to Do

Unfortunately, as much as we've tried to avoid it, our site schedule is now at the mercy of our third-party developers: our graphic designer and our site coder.  We've got a lunch with the designer today, but until then, there's nothing left to do but write copy, write copy, and write copy.  It's a shame, because I was hoping to have a finalized site design to share with you all by now, but we might have to wait till next week on that.

What I had been working on up until now, aside from copywriting, is a numbering system for our product. Online shops have a distinct disadvantage to brick-and-mortar shops in that we have eliminated the hands-on shopping experience.  We can show pictures, technical specs, alternate views, even a 3D model if we're dedicated enough, but it will never replace a customer's ability to hold a product in his or her hand before making a purchase.  This still causes an issue for customers buying fitted items such as clothing and sensory-dependent items such as soaps and cologne. Another difference is that if a product has no label, a brick-and-mortar shop can always find a way to sell the product.  Online, some sort of labeling system is entirely necessary to making a sale.  Well, I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could have a website with an email address listed, a folder full of images, and a price list, and tell the customer to have at it, but that business model falls somewhere between asinine and woefully inefficient.  For any kind of automatic "shopping cart" system, product requires a numbering system.

Now, such a system can be engaged in several ways; one extreme is simply numbering from 1 to whatever, assigning items a number just for the sake of having a shorter reference point.  This is as effective as anything else as far as your computer system is concerned, and 90% of your customers won't even pay attention to it.  As long as you can keep track of it all, this system is quick and painless.

You can also just use the items' UPC codes.  This is probably the easiest system at first, but it tells you very little about the product.  UPCs are also redundant and cumbersome numbers, and some companies have been assigned duplicates (yes, it happens quite often).  It's also problematic if you're buying from artisans or hobbyists who are highly unlikely to even think about registering for UPCs.  If you're a very focused company who only buys from companies who are on the ball , so to speak, this system works, but it's very easy to hit a snag that way.

The next step would be a category system: you have categories, i.e. 10-5167, 10 being the category and 5167 being the item number, assigned in order from 0001 onward.  This is helpful because you can get a general idea of what the item is just by looking at the number.  In a store like Target, which uses a highly specific DPCI system (department, class, item), by looking at the first two numbers, an employee can tell a customer almost down to the aisle where the item is located even without knowing what it is simply from the first few digits of the code.

The most specific system is to have every number in an item code have a meaning.  A category would tell you what the general item is, i.e. food, clothing, toys, electronics. The next code would have yet another item, i.e. soft drinks, clogs, action figures, stereos.  Another code would have a brand assigned to it, i.e. Pepsi, Merrill, Mattel, Sony. From there, specific style codes would break down different models and colors, ensuring that a unique item code can be generated simply by looking at an item. Only a new style number would have to be looked up.  For the obsessive-compulsive or the micro-manager, this is basically a dream system.  It's also a complete and utter annoyance for anyone else and entirely unnecessary unless you have a smaller stock of items worth memorizing.

My system falls between the third and fourth examples.  I have my categories, 11 for standing wine racks, 12 for mounted wine racks, 13 for stemware racks, 21 for aerators, etc.  I also have a style system, an example of which follows:

00 - Black
01 - Ebony
02 - Steel
03 - Gunmetal
04 - Copper
05 - Chrome
06 - Bronze
07 - Gold
08 - Pewter
09 - Silver

10 - Natural
11 - Spiced Pumpkin
12 - Java
13 - Mahogany
14 - Oak
15 - Maple
16 - Walnut

My system also uses a 3 digit item code, though the code itself won't have a specific meaning.  I'll know that if I have a Levered Corkscrew (Category 42), and the item number is in the teens, then I have a Metrokane, but 11 or 12 does not mean Metrokane in every category.  The item numbers are mostly arbitrary, though I tried to add some rhyme and reason within each category.  My system has to be modular, since we will be adding many items over the coming months, but I don't want an excessively long number to deal with while I'm populating the website.  The arbitrary three digit item code, then, is my bargain.

All together, I have a 7 digit number, laid out like this: ## ### ##.  Category, Item, Style. A few examples:

21 000 20: Aerator, Vinturi, Red.  A Vinturi Aerator for red wine.

45 020 00: Self-Pull Corkscrew, Corkpops Original, Black.  A black Corkpops Original Self-Pull Corkscrew

45 050 05: Self-Pull Corkscrew, Circa, Chrome.  A chrome Circa Self-Pull Corkscrew

Awful lot better than those huge SKUs Amazon and Best Buy use, although I would gladly bite the bullet and expand the system if it meant being able to move their volume of merchandise!

So what's on the agenda this week? I've got a photo shoot for all 400+ items, letting the wine racks and bottle stoppers strut their stuff, hopefully a website design meeting today, another design meeting later this week for the code side, and just writing and writing in the meantime.  It'd be nice if I had more to blog about, but I figure I should obey the quality over quantity rule lest I put my readership to sleep.  That would be most uncool of me.


Listened during this post: No One's Gonna Love You by Band of Horses, Esperance/Annamite by Garland of Hours, Vikings by Black Angels, Blindman - Cry for Help by Flying Lotus, The Pig War (O' Hunter Remix by Morgan of Blood Brothers) by Minus The Bear, At Last I Am Free by Pretty Lights, Leif Erikson by Interpol, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window by The Beatles, Asymmetrical Threats by Maserati


  1. Reading this from an SEO perspective makes me cringe at the thought of what your store urls might look like.

    Bad: store.com/11/45-050-05.html
    Good: store.com/standing-wine-racks/wood/blah.html

    Don't let the numbers take over, apache mod's can make all of this easy.

  2. Oh, no, the first decision I made, somewhat against my bosses' initial suggestion, was to use words for everything. I might be butting heads with the coder to do that as well, though he seems pretty on the ball as far as SEO is concerned.

    But you do bring up a good point, and one I forgot to mention. These numbers are for internal use only, and for customers to quickly identify the exact item within your system. The product should always be referred to in copy and on the web by its descriptive name.