Roadblocks slow progress on standardized databases

Food service providers and food products suppliers are complaining that the development of foodservice-product databases sponsored by the International Foodservice Distributors Assn. is moving at a slow pace. They attribute the unsatisfactory progress to the indifference given to the standards by many manufacturers. They also complained that most manufacturers did not understand the standard and were at a loss as to how to distribute the information once it is compiled.

Eighteen months after creation of a standard to facilitate development of foodservice-product databases, progress is still being impeded, according to distributors, marketing-group officials, and others.

“The project is moving along much too slowly from everyone’s standpoint,” Allen Ryan, president of North-Center Foodservice Corp., Augusta, Maine, and chairman of the International Foodservice Distributors Association committee that wrote the standard, complains.

Ryan and others blame several factors. One is lack of recognition by many manufacturers of the benefits computerized databases offer. Another is confusion over what the standard is and how manufacturers can get their information distributed once it has been compiled.

A persistent misconception is that the IFDA standard is itself a centralized database. It is actually just a format for organizing information that makes it easier for companies to exchange data.

Still at issue are what vehicles would best serve the industry for maintaining and distributing data, and who should bear the cost. While such distributors as Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids, Mich., are creating their own databases, the most widely used is one marketed by Sales Partner Systems, Daytona Beach, Fla. This system now includes 12,000 products representing 180 manufacturers. SPS’ XPD product is linked to sales of its proprietary software, however, which has led to questions of access for distributors that are not SPS customers.

SPS charges manufacturers a fee to list their products and distributes the data both as part of software packages sold to distributors for use by DSRs and operators, and in a stand-alone application called ShowCase. It also sells the entire database in IFDA format.

Participating manufacturers also receive copies of their information back from SPS in two forms: ShowCase and IFDA Standard Product Data Exchange Format. Manufacturers own this information and are free to distribute it however they wish, says SPS vice president-sales and marketing Marty Weil. As an added service, SPS distributes a vendor’s data to customers on written request, database director Melissa McKee says.

Despite development of the IFDA standard, confusion has persisted over the different formats. A number of distributors have reported receiving product information in ShowCase rather than IFDA Standard. The former, being a stand-alone application, cannot be incorporated in other programs. On the other hand, SPS president Larry Frank explains, IFDA Standard is simply raw data that cannot be viewed or used without additional programming.

Some in the industry have asserted that SPS at times deliberately avoids or tries to block release of product information to noncustomers in IFDA standard. SPS denies this and points out that, since last spring, it has tried to dispel any confusion that exists over formats with mailings that clarify the difference between ShowCase and the IFDA standard and spell out the rights and means of access vendors have to their data.

Other avenues exist for putting data into IFDA standard beside SPS. Source Data Management, Chicago, a spin-off of Access International, offers an “editor” program that allows anyone to compile product data in IFDA format to populate their own database. National sales manager John Knoebel notes that a number of Access customers and other organizations use this tool. He also stresses that any manufacturer that has product data in the IFDA standard can provide them in that form for use by distributors with Access’ laptop and other sales systems.

A company can also obtain a copy of the format from IFDA and then develop its own software for compiling data. In addition, McKee says that SPS will sell its editor to anyone who wishes to assemble data themselves.

This still leaves unanswered questions concerning distribution of data, which Ryan says will be taken up at a meeting of the IFDA Standard Product Data Exchange Committee next month.

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