Category Management is a way to present a group of like items, generally from a functional perspective, in such a way that the individual kinds of items in the category are listed and described, and their relationships and uses are also cataloged and explained in detail.

Organizing materials in such a fashion is essential for eCommerce sellers in order to support buyers who browse when shopping. Browsing provides the opportunity to understand all the options and enables informed, best-value choices.

A category will consist of an overarching designation: the title of the category. Within this grouping the subcategories can be listed in a branch-like fashion to show their relationships in relation to the entire category.

Here’s an example:

  • Office Supplies
    • Paper
      • White Copy Paper
        • By weight
        • By size
        • By package quantity
        • By brand
        • By finish
        • By price
      • Multi-Purpose Paper
        • Color Paper
        • Recycled Paper…
    • Writing Instruments
    • Fasteners
    • And so on …

Office supplies are ubiquitous and therefore a good category to illustrate the principle of subcategories. Even young students have a basic understanding that there are various items involved in doing activities at school that comprise “supplies” needed to support the learning process. Taking that further, they can distinguish between like-things that are used to write or draw with, things that are used to write or draw upon, things that are used to store or display the items written or drawn upon, and things that are used to change or repair those items; and yet see all of these things as related to each other.

Admittedly, there are some who know more about office supplies than others. For most people, a plain white sheet of 8.5 x 11-inch paper is “copy paper.” Little notice may be given to weight, content, density, manufacturing process, or stability by the average paper user, but for the connoisseur these are important data. For some specific purposes these data are really important. What if you have one of those specific purposes? Or what if the items you need to know about are less familiar and way more complicated?

Yes, there is Wikipedia, a great starter source for history and explanations of just about anything. The nice thing about a good Wikipedia entry is that subject matter experts (SMEs) add to and edit entries so that the knowledgeable community at large is contributing to the store of information that can assist those less knowledgeable. But Wikipedia is targeted for doing the best job at explaining one thing well (with related links). That works great if you only have one thing you need to learn more about. What if you are faced with the task of assembling a group if items that need to complement each other and function well together? Even if you are dealing with only one thing, toggling back and forth between a source of supply and an information web site can get frustrating.

This is where full Category Management comes in. In business or in Government it’s common for the people who do procurement to specialize in that activity, meaning that anything that has to be procured will pass to them regardless of the nature of the buy. Imagine the seamless connection of items of supply and their variations, possible uses, history, and method of manufacture backed up by a library of case studies where the item can be seen and understood in its functional context. Maybe this isn’t necessary for something as simple and well understood as office supplies so let’s look at a further example.

Pretend you must order everything needed to install a new phone system in a 20-story building. What do you know about modern phone systems? What are the technology, price and performance trade-offs? What are the carrier options? What are all the components needed to make a complete system? What are the essential features compared to the nice-to-haves? This is a nice example to explore Category Management with because phones are so familiar to us all…until we stop and think about the infrastructure and behind the scenes equipment that make everything work together.

Furthermore, all of those things are readily available in the commercial market. If you knew enough you could order everything and pay only for the installation labor, or you could hire someone with expert knowledge to compose the full system for you, at additional expense. But even then, how do you validate that expertise?

Category Management means that experts without a stake in your individual procurement can preposition information to inform and advise you. A combination of history, state-of-the-art commentaries, real-world examples, sizing tools, frequently asked questions, and case studies accessible from any page of search results for an item within a category or from any menu on your favorite eCommerce website can help make you confident enough to validate a plan or even build it yourself. In my opinion, this is the future of eCommerce for Government!

The GSA is working on presenting full Category Management to its users within what has been called both the “Acquisition Portal” and the “Acquisition Gateway.” This will be a single website for discovering the available contracts  from which anyone in the Federal Government may order. By combining the efficiency of using Multiple Award Schedules (MAS), Government-Wide Acquisition Contracts (GWACs) and other open ordering instruments with knowledge, GSA is poised to funnel a lot of Government acquisition through this portal or gateway. Let’s see if DLA hops on board when it launches FEDMALL in 2015.