How Product Data Can Help With Traceability


The UK’s shoppers have never had so much information at their fingertips. For any given product, a multitude of different varieties and price points exist. If you don’t fancy walking or driving a short distance to your nearest stockist, you can have everything your heart desires delivered to your door within days.

But as consumers increasingly crave convenience, there are various unseen costs that companies incur to keep up with this demand.

At the heart of much of the smooth running of the supply chain is accurate product data, and the ability to exchange it efficiently.

If you are shopping in store, it may be relatively straightforward to read the information on the back of a packet, but what about if you are shopping online? And how do the various retailers get the products from the suppliers in the first place?

The behind-the-scenes logistics may not unduly concern them, but with consumer demands driving the trend for greater visibility and transparency of what they are buying, there needs to be a system in place to deliver this.   

The modern shopper dictates that product data is properly displayed and that there is increased clarity over what ingredients products contain. You need look no further than recent, high-profile allergy cases to justify the necessity for detailed accounts of an item’s composition and provenance.

In addition, we live in an age where speed of delivery is not just desired but anticipated. Just as we expect instant access to the latest episodes of TV boxsets streamed by sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime, consumers are applying these standards to what they buy at Sainsbury’s or Tesco.  

Because of this, products need to move quickly, placing added pressure on the transfer of data between retailers and suppliers. This is contributing to more errors in the data transfer process, leaving many records incomplete or inaccurate. At GS1 UK, we have found that one in three products fails the independent physical check which validates the accuracy and consistency of its product data.

Redressing the balance

Globalised and multi-tiered supply chains create complexity and the health of our retail sector and economy at large is suffering as money and time is often wasted on systems that fail to properly integrate with one another.

The lack of a universal language to transfer data between suppliers and retailers is the dominant factor behind the inaccuracy and inefficiency of this process. And it’s one that doesn’t need to exist.

Those standards can then form the bedrock for a number of capabilities, including recall readiness, fighting counterfeiting and food safety assurance, as well as providing greater transparency on the origin, ethical and environmental reassurances for consumers.

Beginning in 2016, GS1 UK’s retail grocery advisory board – which included representatives from Tesco, Waitrose, Co-Op, Ocado, Unilever, Nestlé and Pepsico – sought to address this challenge, identifying product data management as a key industry concern.

In 2017, they signed a charter announcing their commitment to create to a single solution for managing and exchanging this information. This led to the creation of productDNA.

Launched in April 2018, the productDNA platform is a single catalogue of high-quality product data that can be shared with multiple grocery retailers, using an industry-agreed set of attributes and a common data definition for each type of product. The platform has since been adopted by 50 per cent of the UK grocery market, with Sainsbury’s the latest retailer to sign up.  

Currently, the service has the capacity to define and manage more than 150 industry-agreed data attributes for products across the grocery sector, including physical product data such as dimensions, weight and volume, as well as nutritional values, ingredients and allergens.

Brands both large and small have already begun to reap the rewards of the platform: when used to its fullest potential, the process ensures improved efficiency and better confidence in the quality of data being provided to and by all parties.

If we convert the future widespread – and potentially universal – use of productDNA into measurable results, similar systems that have been implemented for suppliers overseas allowed them to increase their sales figures between 1 per cent and 3 per cent. Scaled to the size of the UK economy, this could mean an extra £20bn for the UK’s retail grocery industry.

For leaders and decision makers in retail, ensuring that all product data is accurate and easily exchangeable is the underlying framework that can make the whole system run more smoothly.

Our goal is to empower everyone from the waiter to quickly answer diners’ questions about ingredients – including potential allergens and where the product comes from, to the baker preparing a shipment where he needs to communicate important information to downstream trading partners.

With the right information in the right place and the right format, end-to-end traceability will take us from “may contain” to “definitely free-from” with unshakeable confidence, a true retail revolution for all.

Jason Hale
Head of innovation