Build an E-Commerce Product Center from Scratch


In "Understanding the structure of e-commerce products", we introduced the basic structure of e-commerce products. This article will introduce in detail the core of e-commerce products - product center.

After reading this article, you will understand the followings:

  1. What is the definition and roles of the product center?
  2. What are the core modules of the product center?
  3. How to design the product center?

At the same time, you can also systematically master the design ideas of most feature modules related to products.


In last article "Understanding the structure of e-commerce products" I introduced the basic business, system process and product structure of e-commerce as a whole, preliminarily explored the basic appearance of e-commerce through three large images. You may understood the core composition of a complete e-commerce system, and had an overall understanding of e-commerce at the conceptual level.

Starting from this article, I will continue to explain the detailed design ideas and solutions of each core system one by one.

According to the order of roles of each system of e-commerce, we know that the product system is the lowest and most core system. Without product system, other systems cannot operate. Therefore, this article will first bring the detailed design ideas and plans of "product center".

(Click the image to open it in a new window)

1. Overview of the Commodity Center

1. What is a product system?

As the name suggests, product system is a system responsible for managing product related data and capabilities, which can be summarized in the following three sentences:

  • A system responsible for creating and managing offers.
  • A system responsible for creating and managing categories, brands, attributes, and all other product-related data.
  • A system responsible for providing product capabilities to front-end product display and related upstream and downstream systems

In the e-commerce product system, product system are the foundation of all other related systems. In technical terms, product systems are the dependencies of other systems: from product procurement to inventory management, from product creation, on / off sale management to product pricing and front-end display, from promotional activities to order payment, from order production to fulfillment delivery, every process in e-commerce is related to products.

Among all these upstream and downstream systems, the product data must be unified, universal and standardized. For example, product A in the procurement system and product A in the order system need to be the same A, so the product system must have the ability of centralized service to a great extent. Therefore, the product system is also the system that needs to be designed as centralized service in the top priority of all systems.

This is why the title of this article is Build an E-Commerce Product Center from Scratch.

2. What's in the product center? What can a commodity center do?

You can see through from an image:

The middle part of the above picture is the product center. The core modules of the product center can be abstracted into 4, namely:
  • Product category: used to create and manage category and provide category capabilities for products and other systems.
  • Product brand: used to create and manage brands and provide brand capabilities for products and other systems.
  • Product attributes: used to create attributes, manage attributes, and provide attribute capabilities for products and other systems.
  • Products: used to create products, manage products, and provide product capabilities for other systems.

Category management, brand management, attribute management and commodity management exist independently and depend on each other in the system structure. They are independent system modules. Each module is independently responsible for its own features. It can provide services independently and in packages.. Each module is related to each other through specific objects.

Category, brand and attribute are the basic components of a product, and the three together make up a product.

The most basic feature of the product center is to support the product inquiry and display features of each link of the front-end, and provide product capabilities for downstream systems such as price center, promotion center, order center, sourcing & fulfillment center, procurement system, inventory center, warehousing and transportation. and services to ensure the unity of input and output of product data in all systems under the e-commerce system.

Next, we will introduce the general design schemes of the four core modules of the product center.

2. Category management

1. Why should there be category management?

In fact, e-commerce platforms can be regarded as the mapping of physical supermarkets on virtual websites. In the shopping scene of supermarkets, in order to allow consumers to quickly find the products they want to buy, supermarkets often classify products into categories.

Different areas are placed with different categories, each area is marked with a shopping guide, and different shelves display different products. This is the classification of supermarkets. Classification can help consumers find the desired products more conveniently and quickly.

The SKU level of e-commerce is thousands of times that of physical business, and it will become more difficult to find the target products on e-commerce websites. Therefore, the category feature of supermarkets is naturally applied to e-commerce platforms.

For the client: search and classification navigation are the two most used ways for consumers to find products (with the deepening of the application of recommendation technology, the weight of search and category decreases to a certain extent). Category navigation can help users quickly locate the target products. The realization of category navigation feature depends on the category management of products.

For the operator: mass product management also has a large cost for the platform and merchants. In addition to searching for keywords, category management is also an important means to quickly locate a certain product. Category can improve the efficiency of managing products;

2. The underlying design idea of category management (key)

The core design idea of ​​category management is: front-end and back-end separation, many-to-many mapping.

(1) Front and back end separation

Refers to the front-end categories and the back-end categories are designed into two sets of category systems. The back-end categories is mainly for platform management, and its main logic is structured management logic (iPhone13 ∈ mobile phone category, sweatpants ∈ clothing category); Provide operation space for operation and convenience for users to shop. The main logic is for operation and user experience (for example, the category of sweatpants at the front desk can be "new winter products", the main consideration is the operation effect and whether users can find products easily) .

(2) Many-to-many mapping

The front-end categories must be based on the back-end categories. When creating the front-end category, you must first select the back-end category; there is a many-to-many mapping relationship between the front-end categories and the back-end categories, that is, a front-end category can choose multiple back-end categories, different front-end categories can choose the same back-end category.

3. Back-end category design scheme

The "category management", "category design" and "category feature" often mentioned by product managers generally refer to the back-end category management feature, which is an internal management feature of the enterprise, and the back-end category is the real product category.

Generally, the product category model has been determined in the early stage of platform construction. In the later stage, it is only upgraded and optimized according to the business development (expanding the categories). After the back-end categories are created, they can not be easily modified or deleted.

From the perspective of interface, back-end category management mainly includes two visual features: category creation and category management.

(1) Category creation

To create a new category, you need to fill in two main fields: category level and category name. The category name of back-end category is generally filled in the industry category of physical product (such as mobile phone), which is convenient for maintenance and management. The category name must be unique.

The category level is generally designed as a three-level tree structure, and the first, second and third levels of category are progressive layer by layer (too many levels will be complex, and too few will not achieve the purpose of category. The specific design needs to be comprehensively considered according to the category complexity of the platform and other factors).

When the level of creating a new category is level 2 or level 3, you need to select the parent category.

Both category codes and classification ID can be designed to be generated according to certain rules (such as category name + timestamp). Category codes and category ID must be unique.
 When a category is called by other systems to transfer parameters, it can be realized through category  code or category ID.

(2) Category management

Category management mainly provides the features of querying, sorting and modifying the category itself. At the same time, you can design the feature of binding / unbinding the attribute or brand corresponding to the category (it also has the feature of binding the category when creating the attribute or brand).

As mentioned earlier, it is generally not recommended to delete or modify a category (include modifying level and the parent category). When modifying, you need to check whether there is associated data with the category. If there is no associated data, you can modify it to a certain extent; The deletion feature needs to be designed more carefully. Generally, as long as there is associated data with the category (such as associated products, associated front-end category, etc.), it cannot be deleted. When there is no associated data with the category, it can be deleted (it is recommended not to design the deletion feature in the early stage, or it is designed to require advanced permission to delete).

4. Front-end category design scheme

E-Commerce Financial App Screenshot

In terms of responsibility boundary division, front-end category belongs to the feature category of "website / APP operation configuration", which is not a real category feature. When maintaining front-end category, it needs to be associated with one or more back-end categories. When users click the category at the front-end to find products, the system will query which products should be displayed under the front-end category through the three-level mapping relationship of [Front-end category - Back-end category - Products].

(Example of category management interface) 

The design logic of many to many mapping of front and back end category mainly considers the operational requirements and the cognitive differences of users for products. Due to the very large traffic of category navigation, operators often configure some operational categories, such as recommended  product category and common product category. The category of recommended / common product has no direct relationship with product attributes in essence. For operational needs, The front-end category can be associated with multiple different back-end categories (for example, in many e-commerce websites, the category of cell phones and cell accessories in the back-end category are cell phones in the corresponding category of the front-end).

3. Brand management

1. Why brand management?


In the system architecture of large-scale e-commerce platform, brand management, like category management, is an independent and complete feature. When many product manager / designer first came into contact with the product system, they may have seen the design method of directly and simply filling in the brand of the product when creating the product. Why should a large e-commerce platform have a separate brand management module?

In large-scale e-commerce platforms, brands are also an important means for users to query and filter products. The higher the degree of standardization, the greater the usage scenarios of query products through brand filtering (for example, when purchasing cell phones or home appliances on, consumers often choose first brand).

If the brand data is not structured and is left to operators to create products and fill them in at will, there may be products of the same brand filled in as different brands, For example, merchant A fills in iPad as "iPad", merchant B fills in iPad as "Pad", and merchant C even fills in as "Apple Pad". When the underlying data cannot be unified, the front-end filtering or other systems need to use brand data, it cannot be used normally.

2. How to design brand management?

Brand management mainly includes two parts: brand creation and brand management.

(1) Brand creation

There are two main scenarios for brand creation: one is active creation on the platform side. In the initial stage, it is generally initialized directly into the system according to each category; Another common application method for platform based e-commerce is that the three-party merchants settled on the platform apply for brands (for example, in Alibaba platform, if the newly settled merchants have their own new brands or are not included by the platform, they need to go through the brand application process first, and then the new brand coming into the brand library after passing the platform review.

Brand creation generally has several core key elements:

  1. Brand name: Recommend capitalization.
  2. Brand alias: Brands have official names and folk names, and sometimes folk names are more well-known than official ones. 
  3. Brand registration number
  4. Brand logo: Be sure to limit the size of the image to facilitate system display specifications.
  5. Brand registration area.
  6. Other fields are customized according to platform characteristics or industry qualification requirements.

If it is created by means of three-party application, the information to be filled in is consistent with the the platform creation, but after the completion of the application process, it will be submitted for review (the design of the review process is not explained in this paper). Once the review is passed, when the second merchant operates the products of the same brand, it can be directly selected from the brand library.

(2) Brand management
Brand management is the query, modification, enabling / disabling and other features of the brand itself. It should be noted that when modifying or disabling the brand, it should also verify that there is no associated data (products, categories, etc.) under the brand. Otherwise, it cannot be modified or disabled (the modification of some information can be modified if it does not affect the display of other data).
In addition, you can design the mapping relationship between brand and product category. When the category is selected during product distribution, the brand that should appear under the category will be automatically searched (or it can not be designed. The logic of not designing is that when the category is selected, all brands will be searched when the brand is selected. Both the two schemes have advantages and disadvantages).

4. Attribute Management

1. What are the attributes? Why attribute management?

What are attributes—— Attributes refer to the unique properties of products, such as color attributes, size attributes, specification attributes, etc.

What is the role of attributes—— Attribute is also a necessary and important method to classify and aggregate products. Categories and brands can only classify a large number of products to a certain extent. For example, when users buy "home appliances" in, they can query the desired products (such as Apple TV) through categories (such as TV, air conditioner, ice washing...) and brands (such as Samsung and Apple...), However, when users want to further quickly locate the most accurate intention results (such as the 55 inch 4K version of Apple TV), categories and brands are not enough. Therefore, if they want to realize the division of finer granularity, they can only be realized through attributes.


2. The design idea of ​​attribute management

Attributes can be divided into three parts: attribute group > attribute > attribute value

  1. Attribute group: a large number of attributes are classified for easy management, such as "appearance attribute" and "performance attribute" of mobile phone;
  2. Attribute: the attribute name, which refers to specific attributes, such as color, version, and memory;
  3. Attribute value: refers to the specific value of the attribute, such as the attribute value of the color attribute: red, yellow, green;

The above three modules constitute attribute management. Sometimes, in order to facilitate communication at the business level or unify the caliber, or other application scenarios, the design of attribute category will be introduced. Attributes will be classified (relatively abstract category) on the attribute category, which is generally divided into basic attributes, sales attributes, warehousing attributes, logistics attributes, extended attributes (for attribute grouping, there is no standard design. It can be divided in combination with its own platform characteristics, or attribute category can not be designed).

Next, attribute category is combined with three core modules. Taking mobile phone as an example, explain the concepts of attributes through a table:


3. Design scheme of property management

  1. Core features of attribute group: creation and management (search, modify and bind attributes).
  2. Core features of attributes: creation and management (search, modification, bind attribute group, bind category).
  3. Attribute value: depends on attribute feature.

(1) Creation of attribute group

(2) Attribute group management (list)

(3) Attribute group management (details)

(4) Creation of attributes and attribute values

There are also two scenarios for creating attributes and attribute values: one is active creation on the platform side, and the other is a common application method for platform e-commerce, that is, when three-party merchants create products, if the attributes in the attribute library are not enough, they can directly add attributes in the interface of creating products.

Create attributes on platform side

Let's focus on category association: attributes must be associated with category. When creating a new product, the first step is to select category. When the attribute is selected later, the system can query the corresponding attribute according to the selected category (for example, clothing size and other attributes will not be shown under the mobile phone category)

Three party back-end add attribute/attribute value feature

The above is the design introduction of the related feature modules of attribute management. The interface of attribute management (bind category, bind attribute group) is similar to that of attribute group.

Like attribute groups, the deletion and unbinding of attributes also need to check whether there is associated data.

5. Product management

The product management module is mainly responsible for creating and managing products and providing product capabilities for other systems. It is the core module of the product center. At the same time, product management also depends on three modules: category, brand and attribute.

Taking the creation of products as an example, the most important fields to fill in when creating products are to select category, brand and attribute. It can be said that products are modules based on category module, brand module and attribute module.


1. Two concepts - SPU & SKU

Before specifying the product module, it is necessary to explain the two terms "SPU and SKU". Not only the e-commerce platform, most systems involving transactions may involve SPU and SKU. I believe most e-commerce designers have been exposed to these two names.

Generally speaking, a product with the same attribute value and characteristics can be called a SPU SKU (stock keeping unit) - SKU is the unit of inventory in and out measurement, which can be in pieces, boxes, pallets, etc; SKU is a commodity that can be sold. 

2. Create a product

The feature of creating products is relatively simple, which is to fill in a pile of fields. However, according to the size, complexity, vertical professionalism and other factors of the platform, it can be abstracted into two design schemes:

Scheme 1: create multiple SKU at the same time and generate associated SPU synchronously. The overall scheme is to directly create SKU and maintain multiple different attributes; This scheme is applicable to most class 2C integrated e-commerce platforms (for example, Alibaba create commodities in this way)

Scheme 2: create SPU first and create SKU based on SPU. The overall scheme is that the master data team of the platform is responsible for maintaining SPU, and merchants (including direct-sales and POP) maintain SKU based on SPU. When creating SKU, first select SPU (the basic attributes in SPU have been maintained by the data team), maintain sales attributes and logistics attributes based on SPU, and then generate SKU; The scheme is applicable to highly professional vertical B2B industries, such as automobile, medicine, etc.

The reasons for the two directions are: the businesses on the vertical B2B platform (Traditional industry, older business owners) have limited operation ability, and the error rate of maintaining product attributes is much higher than that on the 2C platform, while the platform has high requirements for product structure control. In order to avoid the same product being maintained into multiple different attributes by different businesses (such as tread width, size and other attributes of automobile tires), Platforms often choose a special data team to maintain the basic attributes of products, that is, to maintain SPU.

Moreover, B2B vertical e-commerce has few categories, relatively small SKU magnitude, high degree of category standardization, and high feasibility of unified maintenance by the platform.

For thousands of categories of integrated e-commerce, it is unrealistic to rely on the unified maintenance of the data team of the platform, or non-standard categories such as clothing have low demands on the structured management of goods. Therefore, the design direction of the integrated platform (Alibaba and Amazon) is different from that of the vertical platform.

In fact, even for integrated platforms, different categories will have different design methods. Some categories have vertical depth, which is also the way of platform maintaining SPU and merchant creating SKU.

(1) Create a SKU design scheme and explain it in direction 1.

It can be seen from the figure that multiple SKUs with the same basic attributes correspond to the same SPU. The color attribute + flight category attribute determines a SKU. The price and inventory are stored on the SKU (even if the same price and inventory are filled in batch, they are stored according to the dimension of the SKU at the bottom of the data; while in the front-end, they are displayed in the dimension of the SPU (better experience). Switching sales attributes is to switch different SKU under the same SPU dimension:

The above is the core design logic of scheme 1: that is, when creating a product, maintaining different sales attributes means maintaining multiple different SKU, but eventually generating the same SPU synchronously.

After understanding the design logic, the feature design is very simple. Whether it is a direct sales back-end or a three-party POP back-end, the interface for creating a product is similar, and it can be roughly divided into 7 steps according to the process:
Step 1: select a category. Note that when selecting a category, the back-end category is called (here the category management service is used):

When a category is selected, the system automatically loads the corresponding brand data under the category (in some categories, the brand is selected when filling in the product information).

The following steps are relatively simple, just fill in the corresponding fields.

The above is the design scheme for creating products. The difference between scheme 2 and scheme 1 is that when creating SKU, SKU needs to be created based on SPU, that is, SPU is created and maintained by the internal data operation and maintenance team. When creating SKU, operators and third-party merchants need to select SPU first (if not, they need to submit an application). The specific interface is not different from scheme 1, and this article will not explain it.

3. Other modules of commodity management

After the product is created, it needs to be reviewed before it can be on sale, which involves the design of the state machine of the product, but it is relatively simple, and this article will not explain it.

Finally, the explanation about price: I don’t know if anyone will have any doubts. The product center does not mention price. In many people’s cognition, product and price are one. When creating a product, you must fill in the price. In fact, this is a misunderstanding.

When there is only retail price in the initial stage of business, you can also directly fill in simple prices such as retail price and original price. With the development of business, the business form is becoming more and more complex. When creating goods, the method of directly filling in price will soon be unable to meet the needs of business.

For example, has developed enterprise procurement business and various user prices (plus price, student price, newcomer price), plus promotion price. At this time, the product system can no longer support various forms of price demand. Therefore, in terms of system architecture, product and price are completely independent and separate systems.


6. Summary

Finally, answer the questions at the beginning of the article:

1. What are the responsibilities of the product Center?

  1. Responsible for creating and managing products.
  2. Responsible for creating and managing categories, brands, attributes and all other product related data.
  3. Responsible for providing product capabilities for front-end product display and related upstream and downstream systems.

2. What are the core modules of the commodity center? — Four core modules.

  1. Product category: used to create categories, manage categories, and provide category capabilities for products and other systems.
  2. Product brand: used to create and manage brands and provide brand capabilities for products and other systems.
  3. Product attribute: used to create and manage attributes and provide attribute capabilities for products and other systems.
  4. Product: used to create products, manage products, and provide product capabilities for other systems.

3. How to design each module of the product center—Understand the core focus of each module in one image.

As a dependency of other upstream and downstream systems, the product center is one of the systems that interact with other systems the most. Therefore, for the product center, reasonable architecture design and good scalability are the top priorities, lay a good foundation in the early stage to avoid repeated system reconstruction with the development of business in the later stage.

The above is the whole content of the product center. It mainly introduces the concepts and responsibilities of each module of the product center and the core design ideas of each module. It is suggested that while reading the article, you can also experience different platforms, analyze and summarize more in combination with the article, and then get your own comprehensive understanding.


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