Liaison Express eases competitive analysis

Rapid expansion of the Web and e-marketplaces has introduced a glut of information so sizeable that anyone charged with the task of competitive cost analysis faces a time-consuming, costly and error-prone process.

With your company's livelihood in the balance, the need to harvest and interpret data from competitors and suppliers quickly and accurately is essential to success.

Liaison Technology aims to ease the user's analysis efforts with the release of Liaison Express 2.0, formerly Dexter Price Tracker. The Java-based software tool tracks product and pricing data from the Web sites of suppliers and competitors and aggregates it into a centralised repository for easy digestibility.

Furthermore, Liaison Express allows for flexible repurposing of this data, enabling you to reuse it in purchasing catalogues or directly integrate it into back-office systems.

The product ensures data accuracy and reliability, providing ROI by lowering purchasing costs and improving reaction time in quickly changing markets. Because it can sample pricing at consistent intervals, it ensures availability of accurate data trends that can go a long way in assessing a competitor's pricing strategy.

On the downside, Liaison Express has a convoluted product mapping setup process. The hefty input requirements make it better suited for small and mid-size companies with modest tracking needs.

For this reason, along with some bugginess, poor onboard reporting options, and a costly, year-to-year recurring licensing fee, we were only able to give Liaison Express a score of Good.

Nevertheless, Liaison will make life easier for anyone responsible for competitive analysis. Using its Adaptive Content Recognition (ACR) engine, the tool not only automates the data-aggregation process, but also automatically adapts to redesign changes in a supplier's Web page.

Convoluted development

Getting started with Liaison Express requires setting up the software to recognise the pertinent details, such as price and product description, within a supplier's Web page.

The package quickly had us doing just that with a hands-off installation routine that got things up and running with minimal effort. Liaison's only requirements were Windows NT 4 or later, and Internet Explorer 5.

The process of developing a tracking database is divided into three primary steps: identifying sellers' Web sites, isolating specific products for tracking within those pages, and scheduling the jobs to extract the information.

The process for building a list of sellers' Web sites is straightforward. The step-by-step, wizard-driven instruction guides you to a seller's site. Liaison makes provisions for handling a variety of site-specific circumstances, such as account passwords, search engines, and pages with multiple item listings.

Once the seller's product page is located, isolating a product's specifics, such as price or a unique identifier, is an easy, point-and-click process. Liaison enables assignment of custom field categories to help define and capture additional detail.

Unfortunately, this entire process defines only the seller, providing Liaison with nothing more than a rough layout of the product page; no actual product-specific information is captured in this step. The second step, defining the actual products, required us to launch a new data-entry process that was far less intuitive.

Defining product-specific information, such as make and model number, product type, classification, and even the keyword used to search for a product, all necessitated lengthy hand coding. With no graphical cross-reference to the supplier's page, we found it easier to accomplish this time-consuming task using a separate Web browser on a nearby computer open to the product page for reference.

Once we entered the details, the product needed to be reassociated to a specific supplier, requiring navigation back to the Web page to find the product again. And we had to do this product by product, supplier by supplier, for the entire catalogue.

Taking a tally

Once established, however, building job lists to schedule acquisition frequency was an easy drag-and-drop process. Liaison Express took charge, gathering information from all our Web sources and constructing reports that detailed product and pricing for review.

Four reports are generated that identify skips, failures and changes in product availability, as well as a comprehensive overview of the audit's findings.

Although Liaison's documentation indicated direct support for Microsoft Excel and RTF, we found that the only available option was CSV (comma-separated value), which needed to be imported into products such as Excel for closer examination.

The export capability was still a welcome one however because Liaison's own onboard reporting features weren't comprehensive. Liaison makes documentation for its API available so results can also be built directly into existing business processes.

A beneficial addition to this product would be to give users the ability to set e-mail alerts for fast notification of changes in market conditions, price fluctuation or site outages.

Adaptive recognition

All things considered, Liaison Express performed well and its capability to adapt to the site changes we threw at it was commendable. The tool provides considerable cost savings by eliminating redesign every time a vendor updates its Web site.

We did experience some Java-related bugs specific to the preview function during seller and product identification. Liaison also showed difficulty parsing frames-based Web pages and was confused by encounters with multicolumn product layouts.

All told, Liaison Express is time-consuming to set up, and its annual relicensing fee further diminishes ROI. But we found Liaison Express contributed the data-rich insight necessary to make well-informed, competitive analysis decisions in an info-cluttered marketplace.

The Botom line

Liaison Express 2.0

Busin-ess Case: This content aggregation tool delivers comprehensive, real-time pricing detail from suppliers and competitors. ROI comes from improved reaction to market volatility and the ability to integrate multiple data sources into business processes.

Techn-ology Case: Wizard-driven setup reduces training required to hit the ground running, but setup is still labour intensive. The ACR engine enables adaptation to Web site redesigns, reducing in-house IT costs.

Pros:-l Automated data aggregationl Comprehensive insight into market volatilityl Minimal training requiredCons-:l Convoluted setupl Limited onboard reporting optionsl No alert functionsl Minor bugsCost-: $US75,000 annual licensing feePlatfo-rms: Windows 2000, Windows NT 4.0, SP4 or laterThe time schedule for expanding distribution to Australia is uncertain at this time. However Liason welcomes any enquiries, and interested parties can contact Gregory Sherrill, VP sales, gsherrill@liaison.comLiaison