SEEKING UNIFORMITY

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- Ever since its launch one year ago, UCCnet has been flying low.While the not-for-profit, global data synchronization service got its share of publicity and was a constant presence at shows and conferences, many retailers, suppliers and others in the industry didn't have a clear picture of what it could do for them.They just didn't get it.But following a recent flurry of activity

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- Ever since its launch one year ago, UCCnet has been flying low.

While the not-for-profit, global data synchronization service got its share of publicity and was a constant presence at shows and conferences, many retailers, suppliers and others in the industry didn't have a clear picture of what it could do for them.

They just didn't get it.

But following a recent flurry of activity for UCCnet, change is in the wind for the organization that is attempting to bring uniformity to the way products are identified electronically.

For starters, Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., recently said it would use UCCnet's services.

Then, the WorldWide Retail Exchange, Alexandria, Va., became the first to join UCCnet's new Partners in Sync Alliance Program.

If that wasn't enough, UCC-net also recently unveiled a Global Synchronization System that will enable the communication of product information around the world.

This all followed news that two of the original UCCnet pilot partners, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., and Ralston Purina, St. Louis, have started to regularly exchange product information using the service.

Similarly, Shaw's Supermarkets, West Bridgewater, Mass., and Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., are also participating in data exchanges.

Transora, Chicago, one of the major electronic food exchanges, uses UCCnet, and another, GlobalNetXchange, San Francisco, is considering it.

Additionally, Ahold USA, Chantilly, Va., is getting ready to roll out UCCnet to all of its trading partners, said Paul Benchener, president and chief executive officer of UCCnet. Two five-year agreements with technology providers Commerce One, Pleasanton, Calif., and Digex, Beltsville, Md., will also bolster the service's ability to securely continue its growth, Benchener added.

"All of that together says that UCCnet, like our parent UCC (the Uniform Code Council, also of Lawrenceville), is a very solid and knowledgeable organization, that we have strong industry support and growing international support," Benchener said.

"We have actually met every goal in both the time frame and the business model that were set by our board of governors," Tom Duffy, vice president, marketing and administration, UCCnet.

"We now project that we will far exceed our original business plan capabilities, and because we are operating on a cost-recovery basis, that can only be good news for the community of users."

The number of companies signing up -- or "onboarding" in UCCnet-speak -- is starting to increase exponentially as they understand what UCCnet is and what it isn't.

UCCnet operates on a not-for-profit, cost-recovery and tax-exempt basis, and is thus subject to stringent government regulations.

"We are essentially a utility," said Emil Martinez, vice president, business development. Within the marketplace, "we are specifically required to be neutral, not only by our charter, but by the IRS."

What UCCnet isn't has been the subject of some confusion. Early presentations included a pyramid indicating that applications such as Collaborative Planning, Forecasting and Replenishment, scan-based trading and others, were to be built upon UCCnet's foundational services.

But it was never the intent of UCCnet to do those things itself.

"All those other offerings are to be done by what we call the 'Alliance Partners,"' Duffy said.

"Our vision never changed, but how we communicated it was not as clear and articulate as we can be today," he said.

UCCnet no longer uses the pyramid in its presentations.

UCCnet offers two essential, or foundational, services upon which all other business-to-business enterprises require for their success: data synchronization and a global registry of product information.

Without these, B2B systems cannot accurately exchange the standardized information they need to operate.

Past systems, such as electronic data interchange, have stumbled over precisely this kind of standardization. UCCnet uses standards developed by UCC and its European counterpart, EAN.

"Product data is really boring stuff," said Greg Girard, vice president, retail application strategies, AMR Research, Boston.

"But it's the absolute fuel to manage or to get benefit out of a digital marketplace. If your product data is incorrect, you really can't operate in the digital economy," he said.