The Challenges of Creating a Bike Catalog

Like most shops, 718 Cyclery carries a host of bike brands, who in turn have multiple models.  These models are released very frequently, and often have component, frame material, size and color variations within each model.

A good example is the Santa Cruz 5010. It has 3 Frame Materials, 4 Sizes, 2 Colors and 10 Component Specs.. That works out to 80 flavors of this particular bike.
Multiply that by 15 bike companies, each with 8-14 base models. For mountain bikes alone, we have access to over 850 specific bikes.

We, along with many of our peers, struggle to depict these on our website. There is nothing that turns me off on any business website that I am visiting as a potential customer more than outdated product listings.  Although I understand the challenges at play, it broadcasts the message that the particular business isn't into staying on top of things. 

You only get one chance to make a first impression, right?  When that person hits our website, we better be ready at any moment.  This is the part that we struggled with in terms of keeping our inventory and bike listings current for potential customers to see.

The spectrum for dealing with this issue has a custom built solution on one side, versus 100% ported-in listings on the other (and we have tried both over the years).  

The disadvantage of the "custom" approach is that you need to manage those items manually when there is a change.  With many hundreds of bikes, you can see the downfall of this method.

One of a kind
On the other end of the spectrum, we have tried services that allow these items to be ported directly into our website, but the fees and lack of content/graphic control made us feel like we were looking at someone else's website.

Back when I was a functioning architect in an office, my specialty was creating workflows/pipelines that allowed tools and software to work together. Providing a great end-user experience while at the same time allowing for easy updates of the data on the backed. After years of trial and error, I think we've come up with a method that works.

Step 1: Data in Google Docs.  Admittedly, there is a bit of data entry up front.  The bright side is that researching and entering in the specs of every bike you sell gets you very familiar with these bikes. Using Google Docs gets your date into an industry-standard baseline format, and also allows for incremental updates as bike models evolve.

Step 2: Formatting in Adobe InDesign: Adobe InDesign is primarily a graphic presentation and layout tool.  It also have a great Data Merge feature, which allows it to read data from databases and spreadsheets.  Using this feature, we are able to live connect our data in Google Docs into our graphic layout tool.
Catalog template in InDesign
What you are looking at above is our catalog template in InDesign.  The text that has the << >> brackets on both sides matches the column headers in Google Docs.  The data from Google Docs comes in and populates the graphic template.

Step 3: Document Merge and Link: Basically, once set up, it's a one-button operation to run all of the data from Google Docs into InDesign.  The catalog populates with as many pages as there are entries. Here is an example of our Devinci catalog.  Once created and uploaded, we create a link from our website.

Here is an example of a typical catalog page on our website. For mountain bikes, we break it up by brand.

For other bike types (cyclocross, for example), we break the catalogs up by bike type.

The sustainable part of this format is that when there is an update to a bike model, all we have to do is update our master database in Google Docs and run it through the Data Merge process in InDesign. Elapsed time is less than 1 minute, and we ensure that we have the latest info facing our customers, ready for that 3am web search by a dude in Germany.

In addition, this format serves as a great training tool for our staff. As a matter of fact, I design all of our interfaces as if they were training materials for our staff.  The thought there is that if it's clear enough for training purposes, it will be clear to a customer.

Its important to format all material hitting our website for mobile devices, as 35% of people who visit us online do it through a mobile device or tablet (this % is up from 25% in 2015).

This process lets us control the graphic images, as well as have a pretty decent amount of automation.