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The Claw Beats The Taxman

April 11th, 2013
Remember as a kid going to the arcade and playing "The Claw?" You know, the machine that contained a pile of plush toys, where you would put in an endless stream of quarters, and hopefully be able to snag one of those toys? After about $10 worth of tries, you would eventually win a stuffed flounder worth about a quarter, right? Well, the Texas Supreme Court has weighed in on the sales tax consequences of that transaction,which comes down ultimately to the questions of what did the consumer pay for, and what did they receive? And this might provide some limited guidance for other retailers, pens legal columnist Mark Rasch.

When you sell something, the price is supposed to be a bargained-for negotiation between a willing purchaser and a willing seller. You are buying a product or a service. Tub of popcorn, $2. Tub of popcorn at a movie theater, $6 (but for another 25 cents you can get a jumbo!) The consumer is buying a product, the product has a specified "value," and that transaction is called a sale. And the government gets a slice of that "sale" – maybe 6 percent of the sales price. Sales taxes typically apply to retail sales (merchant to consumer) of non-exempt tangible personal products, and to certain specified services as well.Read more...


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Kroger Adds Electric-Car Chargers And Collects Customer Data

April 9th, 2013
Kroger is adding more than 200 electric-car charging stations for customer use at 112 stores, mostly in California and Arizona, the chain announced on Monday (April 8). But it's not all about eco-friendliness. The grocery giant uses data from the charging stations to track the shopping habits of customers who drive electric vehicles (EVs). Kroger knows from the 74 charging stations it already has in place that EV drivers typically spend 30 minutes longer in stores than owners of conventional automobiles.

The chain may eventually use that data to promote specific products aimed at EV drivers, said Brian Koontz, director of strategic corporate development for Ecotality, which runs the network of charging stations.Read more...


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JCPenney’s Johnson Is Out, Ullman Is Back. Now What?

April 9th, 2013
What happens next at JCPenney (NYSE:JCP), after the 1,100-store chain fired CEO Ron Johnson on Monday (April 8) and replaced him with the CEO that Johnson replaced, Mike Ullman? The retailer isn't saying. But one thing is certain: The chain won't just be turning the clock back to the day Ullman departed in 2011. Many of the internal changes Johnson instituted at JCPenney are effectively irreversible, including remodeling all the chain's stores and replacing much of the chain's IT capability. That money is already spent.

Johnson had already reversed many of his decisions that were the most unpopular with shoppers—including his elimination of sales, discount pricing (including "mark up to mark down") and coupons. And then there's Johnson's beloved shops-within-the-store concept—which isn't likely to be reversed, mainly because it was originally the brainchild of a former Sephora executive with a familiar name: Mike Ullman.Read more...


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Macy’s Thief Exploits Courtesy Hole

April 9th, 2013
Macy's has a courtesy policy in which if any Macy's card shoppers come into a Macy's and do not have their cards with them, they can still charge items to the card by inputting their Social Security number and showing the associate a government ID. It was precisely that policy that created a hole for an Indiana man to crawl through, charging thousands of dollars worth of merchandise to various Macy's customers.

The precise methodology of the accused thief, Mark A. Douglas, is not clear, but he apparently created a list of Macy's account holders and then used various techniques to learn their Social Security numbers. Making the false identifications—with the real shopper's name and a picture of Douglas—seems to have been the easy part. Although sophicated cyberthief techniques could have been used to create that list of Macy's cardholders, it might also have been done as easily as standing near a Macy's cashier and listening.Read more...


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Why One Chain Is Insisting That Same-Day Delivery Orders Can Be Placed Only On The Phone

April 9th, 2013
When 53-store regional chain Sports Chalet decided to join many of its big-chain counterparts in offering same-day delivery, it decided to base both its pricing and its promised delivery time on location and, logically enough, on the availability of the product being sought. The chain also considers same-day orders to be very personal, which is one reason same-day isn't available online. A customer must talk with someone on the phone to receive the service.

Beyond personalization, there is a very practical reason to insist that companies get on the phone for these deliveries: to force shoppers to listen. On the Web, it's very easy to post all kinds of restrictions ("Must call by 1 p.m." or "We're not responsible for traffic jams or road closures") that shoppers won't read and they certainly won't internalize.Read more...


Is Giant Eagle’s Forced Self-Checkout CRM Tactic Smart?

April 8th, 2013
Some Giant Eagle stores have started blocking access to self-checkout for anyone other than loyalty card holders while they are using their cards. It's an interesting move, in that it simultaneously discourages self-checkout usage but also gathers far more information about those who do opt to self-checkout, CRM-style.

For the last couple of years, retailers have had this intense love-hate relationship with self-checkout. Chains have touted "customer service" as their reason both for yanking the self-checkout units out and for adding more of them. Higher theft rates have been reported in some stores and not others. Much of it is like any other retail IT deployment, influenced sharply by how much attention is paid to the deployment and how the customers in different neighborhoods — based on demographics — react to the machines. But the idea of requiring CRM to self-checkout is a new twist. Chains — and that's triply true for grocery — have always struggled getting shoppers to use their loyalty cards. To be fair, many of those difficulties have been self-inflicted.Read more...


Care About Issues Beyond IT?

April 6th, 2013

One of the results of StorefrontBacktalk‘s being acquired back in December is that we are going to be expanding into coverage that goes beyond Retail IT into other areas of retail. The first example of this launched last week and is a daily newsletter and site called FierceRetail.

The site applies the same kind of perspective, analysis and bad jokes that StorefrontBacktalk has always delivered, but we can now explore issues way beyond IT. Consider our coverage of an unorthodox Apple patent, the reasoning behind the Sears Portrait shutdown, why Target’s Manatee mishap is a lot worse than it looked, Samsung’s real retail strategy, why Best Buy and Target’s Geek Squad alliance was doomed and stats showing Visa having all-but-cornered the debit market. It’s all free, of course. If you’d like to sign up, our latest thoughts will be in your Inbox early each morning.…


Retail Employee Theft Databases Riddled With Inaccuracies

April 5th, 2013
On paper, it sounds like a great idea. Create a database of retail employees who are accused of theft and have its contents freely shared with other retailers. Two problems: One, what if the information is flawed, if employees who "confessed" actually argued that they were innocent, and what if this information is being used to deny people jobs? And two, what if it's depriving retailers of honest, falsely accused, talented retail associates?

There are quite a few reasons for the lack of accuracy in these databases. First, loss prevention officers are not there to establish the truth as much as they are there to protect the store brand and the store itself. If no police charges are filed and an associate is simply fired, there can often be an attitude that there's no reason to take a chance once an accusation has been made. Conducting a true investigation is time-consuming, and although some LP officers—especially those with a law enforcement background—have the training to conduct one, few can justify the time.Read more...


A Breached Chain Needs To Remember Its Shoppers Are Victims, Too

April 4th, 2013
When a cyberthief breaks into a retailer’s network and steals data and payment card specs, the retailer absolutely is a victim. But many chains tend to think of themselves as the only victim, an attitude that manifests itself in various ways when talking with their customers who are also victims. Just because a shopper’s monetary losses are being covered by zero liability doesn’t make them feel less violated and, therefore, feel any less like a victim, pens legal columnist Mark Rasch.

When setting policies and when talking with shoppers after a breach, communicating the message that the retailer is the only victim may prove to be self-fulfilling, as you'll quite likely be an imminent victim of lost revenue and thrown-away loyalty. When a crime has been committed, attitude and empathy go a long way — and they are among the hardest things for many chains to deliver.Read more...


Macy’s Wrongly Priced Necklace: The Problem That Was Never Supposed To Be Possible In-Store

April 3rd, 2013
A strange recent incident involving Macy's (NYSE:M), an impressively—and unintentionally—marked down necklace and a POS system is noteworthy not merely because of what happened, but where it happened: namely, in-store. The recent Macy's (NYSE:M) print ad certainly spoke the truth. It described as a "super buy" a $1,500 diamond-silver-and-14-karat-gold necklace on sale for $47. It was indeed a super buy — and it was also a major mistake. But Macy's didn't catch its own mistake for some time, until well after quite a few customers made good on the purchases in-store.

The $1,500 necklace was indeed supposed to be marked down, but only to $479, not $47. Things like this happen online with annoying frequency. But in-store? This raises several questions: Macy's described the error as "a mistake [that] was made in a recent Macy's advertisement," according to Holly Thomas, a Macy's VP for national media relations. Was that mistake replicated in the pricing database, accessible through POS? If the wrong price existed only in the print ad, what happened with the checks-and-balances that are supposed to exist in-store? When an associate did a scan and saw $479, didn't a $47 ad activate any alarm bells? No one thought to check with a supervisor?Read more...


It’s OK To Pay Cash. Really.

April 2nd, 2013

In an interesting small piece out of Washington, it was noted that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts had been hit by a credit card breach. It happens. What made this piece interesting is that the Chief Justice was apparently overheard telling his Starbucks barista and his local D.C. barber about the breach, by way of explaining why he wasn’t using his usual credit card.

Our initial reaction was, “How times have changed. It wasn’t that long ago that coffee and haircut payments were almost always done in cash. It’s certainly interesting that he felt the need to explain and justify his greenback move.” But it could have been for other reasons. By the way, clearly, the Chief Justice doesn’t use a Starbucks card or Starbuck’s mobile app. (Just saying.) Could the judge of judges have been trying to let people know that data breaches are widespread and that no one is safe, that if the Chief Justice can get hit, anyone can? Or maybe these were simply longtime associates and he would have felt the need to explain any change in behavior? (Seems the Chief Justice still has a little pull, as he told those colleagues that the suspect apparently attacked from Kentucky, which is more than most breach victims are told.)…


Are Stores Really Helpless Against Amazon? That Question Has It Backward

April 2nd, 2013
There's a jarring bit of retail insight buried in a story from The Register last Thursday (March 28): "No one can compete with Amazon when a customer knows what they want," The Register's Bill Ray writes. "Stores need to excel at selling things the customer didn't know they were after, and greater technology might not be the best way to achieve that." That sounds depressing, even though it's probably not quite true.

But let's turn it around: If a customer isn't a pure-play showroomer who really just wants to see whether that gadget looks cheesy or that blouse is the right color before buying on Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), what kind of in-store technology can help associates do a better job of helping customers find what they want—and convince customers that here and now is the right time and place to buy it?Read more...


The Ups And Downs Of QR Codes. (OK, It’s Really Just The Downs.)

April 2nd, 2013

QR codes have always been deceptively easy to use, for anyone other than shoppers. Business Insider recently some of the worst QR code deployments it could find and it’s worth a look.

But the retail examples were particularly interesting, such as Subway putting them on employee shirts, which is a place that employees report no one even tries to scan. But our favorite, depicted here, is a sign on how to use QR codes. And to give the lesson? Yep, the shopper has to scan a QR code. …


MasterCard’s Retail Data Grab: Forget PayPal, It’s About Chains

March 26th, 2013
MasterCard (NYSE:MA) wants your customer data. That's the bottom line when it comes to the new fee that the number-two card brand will start slapping on PayPal, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and other digital wallet operators in June. It's not really about digital wallets, which represent a tiny fraction of big chains' transactions. MasterCard just wants to put pressure on anyone who might keep customer data out of the hands of itself and its issuing banks.

Wait—isn't losing control of CRM data the biggest reason chains aren't wild about digital wallets in the first place? Wasn't everyone worried that Google might somehow share transaction data with a chain's competitors? Apparently, that fear was well-founded—just misplaced. It turns out the people who will do anything to grab CRM data are the card brands and issuers.Read more...


With Starbucks’ Grocery CRM Plan, It Had To Get Clever About Fraud

March 26th, 2013
When Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) announced Wednesday (March 20) it would spread its CRM program to grocery stores that sell its bagged coffee, it wasn't merely an industry first. It was Starbucks' attempt to track shopper activity beyond the limits of the chain's stores, site and mobile app—as if CRM deployments aren't already complex enough.

Given that its program would deliver expensive value in the form of free food and drink at its stores, the first priority of the rollout was to try and discourage fraud. And that involved some creative packaging and identification mechanisms. And a choice to exclude mobile from the launch.Read more...


Customer Service Survey Places Apple Second To Last

March 22nd, 2013
The vaunted customer service chops of Apple Stores may not be what they once were. A new retail survey of 10,000 U.S. shoppers placed Apple second-to-last in customer experience, just slightly better than RadioShack. Is Apple a victim of its own reputation? In other words, are its fans' expectations now so high as to be unreachable, delivering disappointment? Another surprise: Ace Hardware placed third, beating out customer service king Nordstrom by one notch. Amazon and Sam's Club were the only retailers to achieve better customer service scores.

Customer service is one of the hardest things to reliably, consistently, accurately and—here's the hardest one—meaningfully measure in retail. Other top customer service performers according to the survey are, in order: PetSmart, BJ's Wholesale, Walgreens, AutoZone and Home Depot. Weak performers include: JCPenney, Marshalls, Gamestop and 7-Eleven. (Note: JCPenney has the distinction of being the retailer that suffered the largest drop in customer service ratings from last year to this year. JCPenney dropped 6 percent. The biggest retail gain during the same period? Office Depot (NYSE:ODP), which boosted its score by 11 percent.) Read more...


U.S. Supreme Court Knocks Down Barrier To Cross-Border E-Tail

March 21st, 2013
The U.S. Supreme Court has removed a major barricade for cross-border E-Commerce. On Tuesday (March 19), the court ruled that so long as a product isn't pirated, U.S. retailers can import it without violating copyright law. In practice, that means an online retailer can sell U.S. customers many products that are lower priced—and were never intended to be sold in the U.S.—without breaking the law.

We're not talking about pirated goods here, but what's often called the "gray market"—legitimate products that aren't authorized for U.S. sale. Those products are usually priced lower, because they're intended for less-affluent markets than the U.S. Costco (NASDAQ:COST)and Kmart (NASDAQ:SHLD) have sold those types of products in the past and gotten into legal trouble. This week's ruling says they won't have that trouble again. But there are much bigger E-Commerce implications in the court's decision to get rid of those geographical limits.Read more...


Federal Appellate Panel Backs Walmart On Obscenity Case, But It Was One Malice Claim From Going In The Opposite Direction

March 20th, 2013
A federal appellate panel on March 15 backed Walmart (NYSE:WMT), ruling that the chain had no need to train employees on when they should or shouldn't call police after seeing customer photographs. The test case involved a couple who had their children taken away for a month, until a judge saw the actual photographs and the results of an examination of the children and then ordered the children to be returned to their parents and no charges filed.

The decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit also flagged to retailers their Achilles heel in such cases, pointing out that the parents' case fell apart when they didn't allege that the store associates had not acted in good faith. In other words, had there been evidence that the associates acted maliciously, things might have gone very differently for Walmart. The parents certainly wouldn't have had difficulty establishing harm that resulted from the associate's actions.Read more...


With POS Paper Supplies Vanishing, E-Receipts May No Longer Be Optional

March 18th, 2013
Maybe digital receipts and coupons are something you need to start promoting—and fast. The second-largest supplier of POS receipt paper, Germany's Koehler, still plans to stop shipping paper to the U.S. in April, after a December ruling by the Commerce Department that will increase tariffs by more than 70 percent. That could translate into shortages and will almost certainly mean higher prices for thermal paper, which is used in most chains' POS printers.

U.S. and Chinese paper mills say they will eventually fill the shortfall from the U.S. exit of Koehler, which has been providing about 40 percent of POS paper. But in the meantime chain execs may be expecting IT to keep stores from running out of paper. Strange as it sounds, it is IT's problem—and the second-easiest option is digital receipts.Read more...


Want To Give Shoppers A Reason To Use Loyalty? How About Saving Their Lives?

March 15th, 2013

Grocery—and other food selling—chains that are trying to encourage shoppers to use CRM? Nothing makes customers more loyal than saving their lives. (Yes, Bentonville, even more than saving them money. Sheesh.) With a steady stream of news reports touting loyalty records as key tools in finding and then notifying customers about poisons, CRM should become a much easier sell.

The capabilities and lives being saved by CRM is hardly new. Costco (NASDAQ: COST) has championed it for years, and Safeway (NYSE:SWY) has been sued for not using loyalty to protect shoppers’ health. Grocery, QSR and convenience chains often complain about the difficulty of getting shoppers to sign up for—and to routinely use—their loyalty cards. Instead of pushing savings, maybe this is a much more effective and truly altruistic (well, semi) argument to make. On the flip side, to help government food investigators do this magic, a lot of data will have to be shared. When that data is then shared with other government agencies and a customer is surprised by an IRS visit? Law enforcement has been finding nuggets in POS databases for years. Privacy violation or saving customer lives? The joys of retail decisions.…


Costco CFO on Item-Level RFID: “That Ain’t Happening”

March 13th, 2013
Item-Level RFID has its backers at Macy's (NASDAQ:M) and a lot of supporters at JCPenney (NYSE:JCP) (if the retailer only had the cash). But a warehouse chain such Costco (NASDAQ: COST)—with aisle inventory stacked dozens of feet in the air—should be a natural. Not so, Costco CFO Richard Galanti said Tuesday (March 12). In fact, not even close.

Asked about ways to cut labor costs, Galanti went out of his way to dismiss it, arguing that he's not buying item-level RFID's promises. "Everybody thought that RFID would free up the front end and reduce our biggest labor cost area. That ain't happening." (How can you not like a CFO who tells a recorded investor call "that ain't happening"?) Costco has always been the contrarian among the largest chains. Read more...


Chain Sues Visa For Breach Fines, May Actually Get Its Day In Court

March 13th, 2013
Apparel chain Genesco (NYSE:GCO) has sued Visa (NYSE:V)—yes, Visa, not the acquiring banks—over the card brand's $13 million in fines due to a 2010 breach. The 2,440-store retailer, which operates the Journeys, Lids and Johnston & Murphy stores, makes the usual arguments: Visa's fines are illegal, Visa broke its own rules, Genesco didn't violate any PCI DSS requirements. (Well, except PCI's First Commandment: Thou shalt not get breached.)

What's interesting here is why Genesco thinks it will get to take Visa to court: A month before Visa notified the acquirers of the assessment, Genesco signed a separate agreement with one of the acquirers, Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), in which the bank actually signed over its right to sue Visa to Genesco.Read more...


KFC Discovers That Mobile Isn’t Nice. It’s Essential

March 11th, 2013
When global chicken fast-food chain KFC launched a major mobile test in the U.K. this month, it has had to learn to deal with realities that are very different than its more mobile-famous corporate brother, Pizza Hut. Although the two chains are both owned by Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM)—along with Taco Bell—the mobile similarities pretty much end there. Some 40 percent of the pizza online orders come from desktops and laptops, with the remainder from mobile.

At KFC, the mobile percentage is expected to be much higher. That's because people typically want pizza delivered to their home or office, whereas a bucket of wings is picked up—after having been ordered from someone driving or walking near the store. (KFC in the U.K. does not deliver.) Pizzas also take longer to cook—compared with preparing already-cooked chicken parts—making the "order and have it waiting for you" model ineffective for KFC. Instead, KFC UK will soon add a geolocation function (likely to be launched in May), so the app knows when the customer is truly right by the restaurant and can ask the customer if the order can be prepared.Read more...


You Know What Your Shoppers Did Last Summer

March 7th, 2013
If consumers make purchases both online and in brick-and-mortar store, you know a great deal. You have surveillance pictures of them in the store. You know what they purchased and what they looked at. You have browser information. If you subscribe to any of the dozens of data aggregation or marketing sites, you know whatever is shared. With "big data" you have aggregated this data, too. Now imagine if you had to tell each and every one of your customers exactly what you collected and what you did with that information. We mean everything.

That is already the law outside the United States and Canada, writes Legal Columnist Mark Rasch, and it may already be the law in those two holdout countries. It's a matter of interpretation.Read more...


Today’s Mobile Uncharted Territory Lesson: What Happens When Your Processor Is Ordered To Not Take Payments?

March 6th, 2013

Today’s frightening question: What happens when your payment processor gets into a legal fight and suddenly can’t process your transactions? This is likely to happen periodically with mobile payments, as patent violations and state revenue rules start to play out. As if to prove that point, Illinois is ordering Square to halt any payments processed within its borders, something that is not likely

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to sit well with Illinois Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) fans—nor Starbucks itself, nor any other Illinois Square merchant.

The Illinois cease-and-desist order involves the ghastly accusation that Square has not obtained the proper state license, something that is complicated by the fact that Square is arguing it doesn’t qualify for that particular license. Square has been fighting this battle in other states, too, with varying results. This is just something to remember when mobile processors are pitching their extreme savings. When entering new, uncharted financial waters, the costs get lower as the risks get higher. This won’t likely be an issue in about two or three years. But for now, having one or two back-up processors is probably not a horrible idea.…


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