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Barnes & Noble Founder: It’s The Stores, Stupid

February 26th, 2013
One of the delicious ironies of merged-channel retail is how easy it is to lose track of the real business. When Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) Chairman Leonard Riggio said on Monday (Feb. 25) that he wants to buy the chain's regular bookstores and E-Commerce operation, everyone suddenly took another look at what was presumed to be a dying brick-and-mortar business. Surprise! The stores are profitable. It's the Nook that's been bleeding the retailer dry.

The Nook was supposed to be merged-channel perfected: Buy anywhere, instant delivery, no DCs required. The physical stores were expected to be steamrolled by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). Instead, Amazon has crushed the Nook, while B&N's stores (with no more competition from Borders) are hanging on. Welcome to Merged Channel 2.0—or possibly Merged Channel II: The Showroom Strikes Back.Read more...


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Phone Tracking And The Law: Clear Sailing

February 21st, 2013
In the ongoing Nordstrom/Euclid cell phone tracking debate, it seems that Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) failed to ask all three necessary questions when using any technology that might raise a privacy concern. These questions are, in no particular order: Is it legal? Is it profitable? And is it wise? Ask only two of these three questions, and you can be in deep trouble, pens Legal Columnist Mark Rasch.

The debate surrounds the Seattle-based retailer's use of a vendor called Euclid, which captures information from the Wi-Fi signals of both customers and passersby. Is it legal? There is no specific U.S. law on whether MAC addresses are "personal information" entitled to legal protection. Moreover, U.S. law regarding things like access to cell phone records and cell phone usage probably don't apply to the Wi-Fi portion of the device. So although it may constitute an unlawful "trap and trace" or "pen register" to capture a cell phone number or IMEI of a cell phone, these laws likely don't apply to capturing the MAC address of a Wi-Fi-enabled device. Put simply, your iPad or Wi-Fi-enabled iPod isn't a phone, nor is the non-phone portion of your iPhone, Blackberry, Android or Windows mobile device.Read more...


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Why Would Google Open A Chain? Ask Apple

February 20th, 2013
Rumors this week that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is on the verge of launching its own chain of brick-and-mortar retail stores mostly seemed to focus on how much better Google is at creating buzz than Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and how the search giant could give Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) real competition in the tech-vendor retail-chain sweepstakes. We also liked hearing pundits not insisting, for once, that Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) will be the next online retailer to jump into physical stores.

But largely missing from the rumor mill is a blunt reality: Google isn't actually a retailer at all. It could probably put up a chain of good-looking stores and find things to put in them—Nexus phones and tablets, Chromebook computers, Google Glass electronic glasses, driverless cars. But what, exactly, would what is fundamentally a huge online advertising company get from opening its own chain? One possible answer: some actual payments.Read more...


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Nordstrom Phone-Tracking Trial Raises Customer-Theft Threat

February 13th, 2013
Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) is six months into a 17-store trial in which shoppers are counted by way of Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. The 236-store apparel chain is not storing any customer personal information from the trial, and it's only being given aggregated data on customers by the vendor handling the trial. But that vendor, Euclid, is storing hashed versions of customer Wi-Fi MAC addresses—and is also running trials for some 35 other of the nation's 100 largest retailers. That presents what could easily become an irresistible cross-retailer mobile tracking temptation.

Two very desirable—and potentially lucrative—sets of shopper data are being captured and saved here. But the retailers and the vendor involved are all pledging to not use it. The first is cross-retailer data, which is where the vendor will recognize a shopper's phone's MAC address when the shopper repeatedly walks into a Nordstrom and then detect that same shopper walking into a Nordstrom competitor. How much would that rival pay for such information? The second data set: Once one of those MAC addresses makes a purchase, the chain could connect that MAC address with the payment information. Voila, instant CRM-friendly data on whenever that customer walks into a store and, with enough sensors, every aisle he or she visits and how long the shopper lingers.Read more...


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Amazon Hands A Digital-Resale Blueprint To Chains, But It’s Trickier Than It Looks

February 12th, 2013
Amazon's newly issued patent for reselling digital goods raises some interesting concerns. The least interesting: Holy cats, Amazon has patented the idea of selling used e-books! (No, it hasn't.) Much more intriguing: What happens when many retailers have their own online digital resale shops? To resell or give away that digital copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four I bought from Walmart (or Barnes & Noble or Target), will I have to get the original retailer involved?

Short answer: apparently so. And with digital content a potential CRM goldmine, more chains may soon start selling digital books, movies, music and audio books—which could get very sticky, for both customers and retailers.Read more...


Privacy Issues Galore Crop Up In California Supreme Court E-Commerce Ruling

February 7th, 2013
On Monday (Feb. 4), the California Supreme Court revisited the question of whether online retailers are permitted to collect certain personal information when engaging in a credit-card transaction. A 1974 statute seems to say "no," but the California Supreme Court says "yes." Although the case is a victory for online retailers, the way the court came to its decision may open up consumers to much more use of personal information. In the end, that possibility may cause the State Legislature to clamp down on new forms of database misuse—for both online and offline retailers, pens Legal Columnist Mark Rasch.

In the 1970s, California passed the Song-Beverly Act. It prohibited merchants (there were no online merchants back then) from requiring, as a condition for accepting a credit card, consumers to provide certain personal information. The legislature was worried about merchants using the pretext of accepting a credit card to mandate that consumers pony up their names, addresses and other personal information.Read more...


California Opens CRM Goldmine For All E-Tailers

February 6th, 2013
The California Supreme Court on Monday (Feb. 4) ruled that online merchants have the right to ask for Zip code and other personal information about shoppers who buy electronically downloadable products, but physical retailers do not. Given the clout of the highest court from the country's largest state making such a ruling—which, in turn, makes it very likely that other states will follow—this decision could sharply change CRM and POS strategies.

Such changes are especially likely because the court did not impose any restrictions on how retailers can use this newly permitted data, despite the ruling saying that data is solely to give online shops a better chance of fighting fraud. The ruling allows address and other information to be demanded from shoppers even when the goods are physical, but only if the product is being shipped to a different location. The rationale is that when a physical product is being delivered, the retailer has an obvious need to ask for the address to which it will be sent. But for fraud purposes, the court's Monday ruling now allows the site to demand the address of the customer, in addition to the delivery address.Read more...


Starbucks Dominates Mobile Payments. Why Isn’t Anyone Else Even In The Game?

January 30th, 2013
Starbucks revealed just how far it is ahead of everyone else in mobile payments last week, and the answer should be both terrifying and heartening for other retailers. The coffee-house chain said its customers do 2.1 million mobile transactions at Starbucks every week—about 5 percent of all its sales transactions in U.S. stores.

That's the terrifying part: No other brick-and-mortar retailer comes remotely close to those numbers in mobile payments. The heartening part: It's possible. Despite all the wheel-spinning from PayPal, Google and Isis when it comes to getting customers to use mobile payments, it can be done. And it's not something unique to Starbucks customers.Read more...


Google Privacy Lawsuit Could Quickly Hurt Retailers

January 28th, 2013
In a move that should send a frightening jolt to retailers, a group of iPhone users in London announced on Monday (Jan. 28) it is in the process of suing Google for online tracking that goes beyond the expectations of those users. On the surface, such legal action against Google falls under the heading of "Join the club." But there's actually more danger here than that.

The essence of the London case is that Google and Apple made privacy promises that are being broken. That fact may make it more of a contract law and a deceptive trade practices claim than a criminal case. And even that is dicey, because the news release from the first plaintiff to file a suit indicates it's less a matter of Google or Apple lying than it is about the companies being vague. But all of that is an issue for the lawyers at Google and maybe Apple. How does this make retailers' lives miserable? Quite easily.Read more...


Did Best Buy Coupon Take Merged Channel Too Far, Or Not Far Enough?

January 23rd, 2013
Best Buy's $50-off fiasco this week is a reminder of a simple fact of merged-channel retail: A little technology usually isn't enough. Early on Monday (Jan. 21), Best Buy E-mailed a coupon to some customers, offering $50 off most purchases of $100 or more if the customer paid by MasterCard, with the discount good for a week. Word quickly spread on bargain-hunter Web sites, and soon customers were online, reporting their successes ($2,500 in Amazon giftcards for $1,250) and failures (one store manager insisted it must be a hoax). By Monday afternoon, Best Buy had pulled the plug on the offer.

Automating coupon-based offers is fine. But if you're going to Internet-up paper-style coupons, you really have to go all the way. And these pretty clearly were conceived as paper coupons. One clue comes in the boilerplate on the coupon, which had relatively few restrictions on products that could be bought (no Apple, Sony or Nikon) but also specified the coupon was good in-store only. It also sported classic paper-coupon language, including "No copies."Read more...


Russian Mall Trying Unorthodox Bluetooth Tactic

January 23rd, 2013

An unorthodox use of Bluetooth is being tested at a huge Russian shopping mall for both in-store customer location and payment transactions. The catch: It’s extremely nonstandard. Instead of pairing with customer smartphones the way Bluetooth devices usually would, individual devices throughout the store broadcast amped-up signals (range: 100 meters, rather than Bluetooth’s usual 30 to 50 meters) that tell a smartphone app about discounts and specials. If the signal from, say, the display of Bartlett pears is strongest (because it’s the nearest broadcaster) and if it meets various demographic criteria (send this one to only males, this one to shoppers older than 70, etc.), that’s the signal the app displays. Meanwhile, other Bluetooth signals with very low range (a few millimeters) are used for payments—no NFC required.

We saw this demonstrated at last week’s NRF show by vendor WiseSec, and it’s clever. But WiseSec says some retailers with especially large footprints may need as many as 50 or 60 Bluetooth beacons per store. With a 100-meter range, multiple stores in a mall will overlap, which is why the differentiation of signal makes sense. A potentially bigger problem: If you’re using high-powered, nonstandard Bluetooth signals, could they interfere with other Bluetooth devices (in-store that means everything from customer phone headsets to POS keyboards)? Not that we don’t trust the Muscovites, but we’ll like this a lot better once we see it not interfering with American or Western European customers and their toys.…


Retail Facial Recognition Comes Of Age

January 23rd, 2013
Some years ago, Legal Columnist Mark Rasch demoed an ATM that had no card, no chip, no PIN and only a limited keyboard. The ATM used facial recognition software to identify him, so he only had to walk up to the machine, type in $20 from checking and, voila! Money dispensed. Assuming that everything works as promised and that facial recognition software is close to 100 percent accurate and reliable, retailers should consider the legal, privacy and compliance issues related to biometrics before rushing in.

Like all innovative technologies (from credit cards to loss prevention devices), it's not clear yet whether consumers will embrace or reject the new technology, or how regulators will ultimately react.Read more...


MCX Embracing QR Codes, The Cloud And Unparalleled Vagueness

January 17th, 2013
Merchant Customer Exchange, the retail group trying to offer its own mobile wallet, plans on using QR codes as the heart of its cloud-based payment app, the group announced Monday (Jan. 14). But beyond the QR code detail and the names of a few new retail members—including Meijer and Wawa—little was discussed during an hour-long panel that meaningfully addressed how the group plans on making a difference, beyond the general platitudes MCX has stressed since its March 2012 launch.

What was different this time, though, is that members were more candid in explaining why they have the goals they do, even if they were not especially forthcoming in how they plan on achieving those goals. The group, for example, re-stressed its intent that data from one chain will not be shared with another chain. Jay Culotta, the treasurer at regional convenience chain Wawa, said many of the mobile vendors say they are not—today—planning on sharing data, but they refuse to say what will happen down the road. "It's not a forever situation," Culotta said, adding that the temptations for leveraging such data will likely be overwhelming. "It's unclear what their business case would be without monetizing that data."Read more...


Reassembling Albertsons: It Won’t Be Easy, But It Has To Be Fast

January 16th, 2013
Putting Albertsons back together again won't be as easy as it looks. The grocery chain was split in 2006 between Supervalu and private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, with both chains using the same logo in different geographic regions. But on January 10 the two owners decided to reunite what will now be a 650-store chain in a complicated deal that leaves only one thing very clear: These money managers aren't thinking about IT when it comes to reassembling the chain.

Yes, the Albertsons logo is the same on both sides. But seven years later, everything from self-checkout to loyalty to POS to prescription systems is now different across the soon-to-be-unsplit chain. And everything will have to be merged—and fast.Read more...


Home Depot Privacy Pratfall: Spotting Web Shoppers In-Store

January 16th, 2013
Home Depot has been using a CRM practice that uses payment-card numbers to match in-store customers with their online purchases. It's a move that, although likely passable for PCI, is rather unnerving to privacy advocates. Home Depot officials stress that they only use the technique with shoppers who opt in, an argument that is somewhat tempered by how often consumers don't even notice privacy opt-in and opt-out Web site declarations. The chain has been using this technique for various purposes, including E-mailing in-store customers to ask them to review their recent purchases.

Home Depot's use of the card-matching procedure is not that unusual among major chains, but the norm is for the effort to be kept internal, to help improve general marketing. It was Home Depot's reaching out to customers that made some of them realize what was going on. And therein lies the problem.Read more...


Macy’s Amazon-Envy-Fueled Data Analytics Culture Change

January 16th, 2013

At an NRF panel on Monday (Jan. 14), a Macy’s E-Commerce exec said the chain wants to run quite a few small-scale analytics trials, something the exec said was “Amazon-like.” (Now there’s an adjective that strikes deep retail emotions.) “We want to build an Amazon-like testing environment, but a testing culture is not something people understand right away,” said Kerem Tomak, Macys.com VP of marketing analytics, according to our U.K. media partner, Retail Week. “We are educating others of the power of testing.”

Experimenting online to see what works best for collecting useful marketing and CRM data? Yes, that’s Amazonian, but it’s less of a culture change for Macy’s than it might seem. Remember, this is the chain that developed its shipping-from-stores system by starting with limited, low-cost experiments and then growing what worked and killing what didn’t. (Contrast that with JCPenney’s big-bang approach, where the chain locked into a grand plan and is now grimly marching into oblivion.) We’re pretty sure Tomak is wrong about Macy’s customers not understanding a “testing culture.” What they’ll hate is an “I found out somebody else was offered a lower price” culture. That’s when Macy’s will have trouble.


Catalogs Are Better Than Social Media? Wait, Didn’t We Dump Catalogs For Social?

January 9th, 2013
If printed catalogs are dead, someone should tell E-Commerce customers. On Tuesday (Jan. 8), personalization vendor Baynote released the results of a holiday survey of online consumers that found paper catalogs still have a bigger influence on buying than social media sites Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. And that's not just among geezers who grew up with the Sears Wish Book—online customers age 18 to 24 also rated catalogs higher than anything except Facebook, where it's essentially neck-and-neck.

Part of that may be a novelty factor—glossy printed material isn't so much a part of young consumers' lives today. But that only explains why catalogs might have some influence, not as-big-as-Facebook influence. Given that many chains completely dumped their catalog efforts in favor of social efforts in recent years, this is a genuinely annoying result.Read more...


Amazon’s Football Foul-Up Wasn’t In Sending Congrats Hours Early, But Days Late

January 9th, 2013
By now, almost everyone in retail knows about Amazon's glitch that sent congratulatory victory E-mails to fans of both Alabama and Notre Dame—half a day before they played in the NCAA championship game on Monday night (Jan. 7). The obvious question: Why weren't safeguards in place to prevent this from happening?

Amazon isn't saying, but chances are good that such safeguards were in place—and that's why the victory E-mails went out hours before the game even started.Read more...


Bloomingdale’s Mirror Effort Gets Shoppers Out Of The Dressing Room And Into The Database

January 9th, 2013
When Bloomingdale's trialed the latest version of the virtual mirror at 20 of its stores this past Fall, the chain's pitch to consumers was one of convenience and modesty. Shoppers could try on lots of clothes and accessories without having to take off their clothes. But the real benefit was in another type of exposure: Getting shoppers to try on, accept and sometimes reject, outfit after outfit, and do it all while being recorded and having every choice captured and catalogued for marketing.

The data went to Bloomingdale's in aggregate, but the system could just as easily deliver CRM-friendly customer-specific data. The mirrors enable shoppers to try on far more outfits and combinations than time—or store inventory—would ever permit.Read more...


StorefrontBacktalk‘s Next Chapter

January 8th, 2013
As the founder of StorefrontBacktalk, I am thrilled to announce today that StorefrontBacktalk is now a member of the FierceMarkets family of B2B publications. FierceMarkets is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Questex Media Group.

Our voice and approach—for good or for bad—will not change, and we have been told to continue delivering the same mix of breaking retail IT stories, analysis and opinion columns. (Yes, and some truly awful jokes. It's in the contract that those stay.) The bylines here will stay, as Frank Hayes, PCI Columnist Walt Conway, Legal Columnist Mark Rasch and the rest of the team will continue to do that which we do. Me, too.Read more...


New Child Protection Rules Create A Retail Catch-22

January 2nd, 2013
A few days before Christmas, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approved major changes to its online child protection rules, including adding geolocation data, IP address and mobile device ID to the information that can't be recorded from a site visitor who is younger than 13 years old.

The problem for retail chains is the vagueness of definitions for sites aimed at children. Is the toy section of Walmart.com such a site? What about games at McDonalds.com? Then there's the Catch-22 of asking ages online. If you ask, you'll be required to segregate the data from anyone in that age group and handle it—no pun intended—with kid gloves. (No pun intended. That was a play on words, not a pun.) And if you don't ask, you have the perfect defense that you didn't knowingly collect data from under-age shoppers without parental consent. Did the FTC really intend to encourage what Legal Columnist Mark Rasch calls the Sgt. Schultz Defense?Read more...


JCPenney Is Predicted To Vanish In 2013 By People Who Are Truly Awful At Predictions

January 2nd, 2013
It's New Year's, which means prediction time—and JCPenney, Talbots and Pacific Sunwear are "Brands That Will Disappear in 2013," according to investment blog 24/7 Wall St. This should send a chill down the collective spines of these chains—except that these prognosticators have a lousy history of guessing which retailers will disappear. For example, in 2011 and 2012, Sears, American Apparel, A&W Restaurants, RadioShack, Zales and Blockbuster were all supposed to vanish. They're all still around.

The last time these Wall Street guys almost accurately picked a vanishing retail brand was Borders. It turns out that E-Commerce makes even the most zombie-like retail names harder to kill. But that's not the only thing involved.Read more...


Is Amazon’s New Gift Program The New Reality?

December 12th, 2012
When Amazon on Wednesday (Dec. 12) rolled out its Friends & Family Gifting program, what was most striking about the program is how virtually nothing was striking about the program. After all, this is Amazon.com, the master e-tailer who has brought us such hits as guessing religion based on giftwrap choices, how to exchange gifts in a truly new way and not charging until the gift is fully accepted.

This new program is bizarrely ordinary, offering functionality that Amazon—and almost all of its rivals—have offered for years. Could this reflect Amazon's adapting to a new environment, where many of its longtime competitive advantages—such as sales-tax-free sales—are going away? Even its move into same-day delivery is not a differentiator anymore, with Walmart, Google, eBay and Macy's toying with the same program.Read more...


With Fed Child Rules Moving In-Store Via Mobile, How Will You Know Who’s A Child?

December 12th, 2012
As federal authorities are preparing in 2013 to significantly update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), one likely area will involve taking jurisdiction over all mobile interactions, including those in-store. This will finally address what had been a retail marketing loophole, where tracking nine-year-olds online is prohibited but the identical conduct in a store's aisles is permitted.

This puts retailers in an awkward position. As malls and stores track mobile device activity, retailers will likely have no idea the age of the shoppers associated with phones and tablets unless they ask—which is exactly what COPPA is intended to prevent.Read more...


Window Shopping Felonies

December 6th, 2012
Big data is cool and awesome, and it can help retailers compete. But depending on where the big data comes from, it can also land you in federal prison for computer hacking and trespass—even if that data is right there on a competitor's Web site. These firms overwhelmingly get this data from the same place anyone would—the Web sites or apps that are "publicly accessible." This would be the same thing as sending out "secret shoppers" to competitors' stores to scope out prices and report them back. Perfectly legal, right? Not so fast, pens Legal Columnist Mark Rasch.

The Web site, where a company "publicly" advertises its goods and services and shows its prices, is similar to the brick-and-mortar store. However, unlike the store, access to the Web site is granted subject to a "contract" between the merchant and the visitor, typically a "Terms of Use" agreement linked to on the bottom of the homepage. Visit the site, and you are agreeing to these terms. Violate the terms, and you are visiting the site unlawfully, exceeding the scope of your authorization to use the site. Or, in legal parlance, violating the computer hacking statute, 18 U.S.C. 1030.Read more...


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