What if you knew as much about prospective trading partners as you are able to learn about potential Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) friends? Of course, the range of topics would be vastly different, so instead of knowing the names of their dogs and cats, you could find out whether they were experienced in drop-shipping to customers, or whether their catalog included a specific range of products you're considering. That's exactly the kind of access being touted in an emerging online tool.
The problems of growing a supply chain are remarkably similar to those of finding new friends. Beyond the basics of being in the same general industry, there is a whole range of qualifications that make one partner more viable than another, and some that will immediately disqualify a prospective relationship. And just as in a developing friendship, it's sometimes only after investing considerable time in getting to know the new partner that some critical information comes to light.
For personal relationships, that's just part of the dance, but for businesses expanding their product offerings and customer bases, that lost time often translates to missed opportunities and and even financial loss. SPS Commerce, the software-as-a-service (SaaS) based supply-chain enabler's business-social product, dubbed Retail Universe, is emerging as the tool providing capabilities analogous to Facebook or LinkedIn for scouting trading partners that meet the specific criteria a company is looking for.
In a recent report, supply-chain veteran Ken Kinlock quotes Eric Chaffee, SPS Commerce's director of product management, as saying:
A supplier can use the directory to promote its capabilities to potential retail customers. A retailer can engage potential vendors in online sourcing conversations and exchange marketing information to streamline buying decisions.
In short, a retailer looking to add products to its online catalog can search Retail Universe for suppliers that offer specific product lines, are EDI enabled, and have the necessary infrastructure in place to fulfill online orders from the retailer's Website by shipping directly to the end customer. Of course, those are only a few of the criteria searches, and according to SPS' Chaffee, the system's capabilities are expanding rapidly.
Most all of the current social networking sites have taken criticism for the way they handle security, and some still get cited for the lack of control they provide their users over just who is able to view their information. Retail Universe apparently took its queues on this score, at least in part from Google Plus, which was first to introduce the concept of circles that allow its users to segment their connections into groups, with each circle having its own levels of access to information. Similarly, Retail Universe has "orbits" that allow member companies to share varying levels of information with their own defined groups of connected companies.
For example, a supplier could allow open access to its product list to any Retail Universe member, but restrict its pricing, terms, and other information to a selected set of trading partners. And it can establish multiple orbits, each with different sets of permissions based on the level of the relationship between the companies.
The world of social networking still has some distance to travel before it is as important to businesses as it is to individuals. But Retail Universe may be the first to offer the supply chain a viable way to find potential trading partners.