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Bowlus wins award for innovation

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SOLON, Ohio — ECRM founder and chief executive officer Charlie Bowlus has been named MMR’s Industry Innovator of the Year for 2010.

ECRM founder and chief executive officer Charlie Bowlus has been named MMR’s Industry Innovator of the Year for 2010.

The award recognizes ECRM’s impact on the way retailers and suppliers do business, as well as the innovation reflected in the steady stream of new events and new technological tools the company continues to roll out.

According to Bowlus, though, ECRM’s customers deserve most of the credit for many of those innovations. That is particularly true in the case of ECRM’s ever-evolving MarketGate software.

"MarketGate is a suite of applications designed for both buyers and sellers to streamline how they go to market," Bowlus says. "And we have a very unique model, in that the retailers and suppliers who come to our shows are really the initiators of the new software products. At every event we have people who use the software and have ideas about how to make it better."

The software was initially designed simply to make ECRM’s Efficient Program Planning Sessions (EPPS) more productive.

"EPPS is not a trade show but rather a new way to do business that improves sales while saving time and expense," Bowlus says.

Before going to an EPPS event, suppliers preload their product images and data for new items and promotions, while retailers load their new and promotional items forms. At EPPS buyers scan items of interest, and both parties note pertinent information on iPads or tablet computers loaded with MarketGate software. Both parties can also e-mail their notes and item selections to those responsible for follow-up, and the system instantaneously downloads supplier data to retailer custom forms.

"Our goal is to provide EPPS attendees with software that eliminates redundancy and extra work," Bowlus says. "If you’re a buyer, when you leave our event you can go to a recap site and see all the items you selected. You can fine-tune that list, and then hit a button and e-mail those suppliers which items you’re taking or not taking. We have many buyers who tell us they have reduced supplier review time by over 50% because they don’t have to meet with them back in the office over the course of the year."

One component of MarketGate is a product catalog, which includes hi- and low-res images and a comprehensive central data warehouse with more than 500 data fields. Suppliers can download their product files to customized catalogs in online, PDF or Microsoft Excel-compatible formats, which they can then e-mail to reps, brokers, wholesalers and customers.

Meanwhile, the catalog is set up to facilitate the automatic download of that information to retailers’ custom item forms or buyer spreadsheets, allowing suppliers to eliminate hours of paperwork, not to mention the potential for retyping errors. Retailers also can publish catalogs, including vendor items, that can be electronically distributed to their stores.
ECRM always had images in the product catalog, Bowlus notes, but originally they would not appear on buyers’ follow-up sites.

"A guy from Asda was at one of our shows, and he asked if we could add images to his review site, so he could see the products he had ordered," Bowlus recalls. "I called my IT guys, and two hours later we had images on the review site. When the buyer returned to his room that night, he visited the site and was blown away when he saw the images. We are fortunate to have a team of developers that move quickly when the customer has a need."

Another new development involves the images themselves — many companies have trouble getting suitable digital images, and third-party solutions have traditionally been expensive.

"We developed our own process for imaging which can be integrated to product catalog to provide the supplier or retailer with a simple, low-cost but effective solution," Bowlus says. "Our customers can now get high-res, low-res, and even 3D images at a fraction of the price they may find elsewhere."

Another customer need led to the addition of a scorecard manager to the MarketGate suite. The scorecards make it easier for retailers to find manufacturers for their private label products. Instead of sending a group of sourcing people to Eastern Europe to find new factories, a large retailer in the United Kingdom used MarketGate to create a scorecard that was mass e-mailed through MarketGate’s contact manager to over 600 suppliers in that region. The retailer was able to narrow the list of qualified manufacturers to 30, and then, after conducting a supplier review at an ECRM event, down to about seven companies. At that point the retailer sent a team to Eastern Europe to do factory audits. Bowlus says that using scorecards enabled the retailer to shave about 18 months off the process of selecting three new suppliers.

The capabilities of MarketGate’s promotion-planning tools and contact manager have convinced many companies to use the product to help manage their businesses year round, Bowlus says. Although ECRM provides free access to the Web-based software to everyone who attends its shows, a number of firms wanted to give more of their people access to the same tools. As a result, ECRM began selling site licenses for MarketGate, and the income from that business has become a significant source of revenue for ECRM as well.

"It’s not that we’re so brilliant that we come up with all these great ideas," Bowlus reiterates. "Our customers come up with the great ideas, and we implement them. We have a business model that enables us to develop solutions at a low cost very quickly. Once the software has established value, we may or may not be able to monetize it."

ECRM’s main source of revenue remains its EPPS events, and the company continues to find innovative ways to grow that business as well. ECRM did about 50 events in 2009 and 68 in 2010. More than 100 events are planned for 2011. Much of that growth is coming in the food category and, in particular, in regional food shows, which this year will include perishables for the first time. Besides retailers, many of the food shows will count restaurants and hotels among their attendees.

ECRM did its first wine show in California’s Napa Valley last September. Bowlus calls it “arguably the best new show we’ve ever done” and notes that ECRM plans to add wine shows this year in Europe and South America, as well as the United States.

International shows will also be a big source of growth for ECRM going forward, with events planned for Europe, India, Japan, Southeast Asia, China, Latin America and Africa.

The company also plans to grow its General Merchandise offerings significantly, with new events planned for hardware, automotive and upscale housewares, pet and household.

"The events are evolving to focus more on what our customers want, and improvements in the software help improve results," Bowlus says. "That’s been our purpose all along, to improve the way companies do business."


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