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how to design for varied product

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I've been asked to create an online inventory system for multiple vendors.

The data should be stored in a way that allows searching on product parameters; the simple ones like color, size and other parameters like schedule times, expiration and must be of age.

The vendor list is varied, including food, clothing, automotive parts, services and ... you name it.

The parameters are so varied and rich that I can't come up with a simple scheme of how to record the information.  I thought of a table with 'meta' columns that rely on a product characteristics to define them, or just a huge text field with a delimited list of paramters; like size:14, color:red, or product type tables; table_clothing, table_coatings, table_travel...  My class analogy would be automotive_services extends product many times over.

What ever I decide to do, I'll wind up chucking it as I've never thought about this kind of an inventory database.  I'd like to hear from a e-commerce guy on how they did it.

Thanks for any suggestions.

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This would be a good job for a NoSQL-type database, or some similar mechanism. Otherwise the purely relational approach is an indexed key/value store (product ID, meta key, meta value) or two (first has product type + meta key, second has first's ID + meta value). A huge text field is definitely not the way to go.

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