Top Stories



JCPenney Uses Mobile As A Clever Way To Track Where Gifts Go

November 30th, 2011
The elves at JCPenney have come up with something rather clever: a mobile app that allows for gift recipients to hear custom voice messages from a gift-giver. And a program that packs a multi-layered CRM data-collection punch. The recipient scans a QR code that is taped to the gift and instantly hears the gift-giver's voice relaying a holiday-friendly message. (In my family, it would something sweet like "Here are the ^#&! gloves you wanted. So where's the $50 you borrowed from me?")

The reason this idea has such potential is the chain is using the mobile device solely as a tool, where both JCPenney and the app quickly get out of the way and let the recipient and the gift-giver truly communicate. From a CRM perspective, it's clever for JCPenney because they set it up to force the system to call the gift-giver back to record the message. Therefore, the chain can gather lots of mobile numbers for later messaging use and, depending on future tracking purposes, perhaps much more through in-store interactions. The first step, though, is to collect those numbers and this is a wonderfully innocuous way to start.Read more...


StorefrontBacktalk Will Not Publish Newsletter For Thanksgiving

November 16th, 2011

Given the dominance of the key U.S. holiday next week (we mean Thanksgiving, not Black Friday), StorefrontBacktalk‘s weekly newsletter won’t publish on November 24. Everything else will still be live (the Web sites, our Kindle version, our Twitter tweets, our mobile sites, etc.), but we need a little time off to burn some turkey and over-season some stuffing.

Speaking of which, we want to tap into the knowledge of our audience with a question that has nothing to do with retail technology. One of us here at StorefrontBacktalk is going to try something new for Thanksgiving: Cooking the turkey on a gas grill. The problem is that, well, it’s me. And my Weber grill seems to have two temperature settings: 750 degrees Fahrenheit and OFF. To be precise, it has tons of settings, but those two numbers seem to be the only heat levels the beast is capable of delivering and maintaining. In a short duration grilling (say 5 to 8 minutes), it’s easy to compensate. But when dinner for a dozen people needs to cook for five hours, I’m open to any tricks to get the temperature to get down to 325 degrees and to stay there. Any suggestions? If you do have any suggestions, please E-mail me at Help Evan To Not Turn His Entree Into Sawdust Held Together By Static Electricity.…


Item-Level RFID Being Crippled Due To Retail IT Fears

November 9th, 2011
Is item-level RFID a surveillance technology? Of course it is, if you're a thief—particularly a sticky-fingered employee. When missing product can be routinely discovered within hours instead of weeks, it's much easier to scan store security recordings to spot the theft. RFID wasn't designed for surveillance—that's just a side effect. Another side effect: item-level RFID's ability to let executives track exactly how well stock is moving in and out of stores on a daily basis. If you're the manager of a store with problems, that might feel like surveillance, too.

For many retail IT execs, it's more than a little uncomfortable. Store managers are on the same side as IT. Setting up systems to see who's underperforming—and exactly how, in near-real-time—can feel, well, a little dirty. Maybe that's why so few chains are doing it—and why most of the systems offered by vendors for using RFID data aren't built for that type of visibility. "Our number-one fight with software vendors is, your software doesn't do enough," said American Apparel VP of Technology Stacey Shulman. "'Well, it's what everybody else uses.' Well, it's not enough."Read more...


In-Store Trial: 3 Mobile Datapoints To Locate Customers

October 26th, 2011
In a five-store trial—slated to expand chain-wide in the next two weeks—the Meijer grocery chain has gotten creative about letting customers locate products on the shelves using their phones. Given that GPS won't work in-store and that in-store hardware sensors are expensive and labor-intensive, the chain is using a combination of Wi-Fi signal strength and product-barcode scanning to zero in on the customer's location.

The potential of this microlocation mobile approach is compelling, because it provides a relatively easy—and somewhat accurate—way to help customers find product. Of course, that's not the goal of all chains. Some chains—such as Costco—depend heavily on the customer stumbling on impulse buys as he/she wanders the aisles in search of the elusive clothes pins or peanuts.Read more...


Japanese RFID-In-Hanger Trial Raises Questions About Extra Labor, Customer Distractions

October 19th, 2011
A Japanese department store, 109 Men's in Shibuya, has begun experiments with RFID chips embedded in clothes hangers. The idea is that a customer who takes clothing off the rack would trigger associated video, lighting and music, along with a log of the action. But will such a system be worth the non-trivial amount of extra labor involved?

When customers bring clothes to a dressing room—or even when those apparel items are purchased—there would seem to be a strong chance that the wrong hangers could get associated with the wrong piece of clothing. Attentive associates could painstakingly note the numbers of each identical hanger to make sure one item doesn't get confused with another, but that would seem to demand a sharp labor increase.Read more...

Can Item-Level RFID Pay For Itself By Cutting Theft? Well, Sort Of

October 12th, 2011

According to American Apparel, item-level RFID can pay for itself by cutting employee theft. The 285-store chain’s VP of Technology, Stacey Shulman, told RFID Journal that in stores using RFID for inventory accuracy, internal shrinkage has dropped by an average of 55 percent. (The chain started by putting RFID in 50 of its stores with the highest shrinkage rates.) As a result, the savings covers the deployment cost. Of course, that’s something of an accounting trick. Deploy any surveillance technology in a store with lots of employee theft and some thieves will get nervous and stop stealing—for a while.

Shrinkage drops, and IT can declare that RFID’s ROI is 100 percent. Then, by the time the thieves start stealing again, it’s hard to argue with item-level RFID’s other benefits in better accuracy and faster replenishment, which is why Macy’s is pushing item-level RFID hard. Besides, the theft rate might never return to its original levels, right? It’s also wise to remember that the only retail people who care about ROI are the people can say “no”: your CFO’s team. And for IT projects, they check ROI once. So if it looks like thefts have been avoided, you get the credit. And given that the team won’t check again in four months, you’ll likely never get dinged if the reductions were short-lived. Short attention spans can be your friends.…

Macy’s Pledging Item-Level RFID Chain-Wide By 2013

September 28th, 2011
Macy's on Wednesday (Sept. 28) pledged an aggressive chain-wide RFID rollout, promising to item-level tag some 700,000 UPCs in every Macy's and Bloomingdale's by the end of 2013. That will represent about a third of all of the $25 billion chain's products and one of the most aggressive retail item-level deployments yet. Macy's won't be tagging any of the replenishment goods directly, leaving that task to its suppliers, who will ship products to Macy's already tagged.

This massive item-level selling-floor-to-the-stockroom project began as a pilot at the Bloomingdale's New York SoHo, which is a pilot-friendly place apparently—the chain is now using Bloomingdale's SoHo to test Google Wallet. As a practical matter, this rollout will give Macy's a wide range of technology options as the potential of full item-level RFID gets closer. But Macy's is officially focused fully on just one RFID function: faster and more accurate inventory.Read more...

Lab Mirror Retail Idea: A Little Impractical And A Lot Creepy

September 15th, 2011
Early this month, The New York Times R&D Lab started talking up some work it is doing to create an interactive mirror. The idea is that consumers would replace their regular mirrors with this souped-up, voice-recognizing networked version. It responds to the command "Mirror?" You can place a bottle of antacid on the ledge and it will identify it, offer instructions and perhaps a coupon. It will also create a digital tie and "place" it on your neck to try and match your shirt.

This is a very clever project, but I have to wonder whether it has any practical value. There is something ultra-sensitive about a bathroom mirror. Yeah, there's that naked thing and the video-streaming thing that may not play well together. When I think of all of the potentially creepy implementations of RFID, mobile geolocations and facial recognition, I think an interactive video-capable mirror using Microsoft Kinect has got to rank right up there.Read more...

Now For All StorefrontBacktalk Readers: Five Monthlies Covering E-Commerce, Mobile, Security, In-Store And CRM

September 14th, 2011
Starting today (Sept. 14), we are making our monthly topic-specific newsletters available for all of our readers, for free. These five newsletters—each one covering solely E-Commerce, Mobile, PCI/Security, In-Store or CRM issues—have until now only been available to Premium subscribers.

For readers focused on any of those areas, the Monthlies provide an easy way to keep up-to-date and to make sure you don't miss any story important to your operation. The Monthlies also have two other helpful features.Read more...

When Prices Can Be Changed On The Fly, What Price Do You Have To Honor?

September 14th, 2011
What does the "price" of an item mean? If you pick up a can of corn at the Piggly Wiggly and the electronic shelf label (ESL) says it is $1, but the price changes when you walk up to the register, what price is the merchant legally required to deliver? Although any reasonable merchants would likely honor the lower price, must they do so? What about an online store, where the price of an item might easily be changed between the time a customer puts it in his shopping cart and the time he checks out?

There are two different legal precedents for these situations, writes Legal Columnist Mark Rasch—and in fact, they go in exactly opposite directions. That creates an inherent problem, for both consumer relations and the law. Customers could feel cheated if price changes don't work the way the customer expects. And as ESLs make in-store pricing work more like online pricing, that could change the way courts see it.Read more...

German Grocers Tagging Workers To Limit Time In Freezers

August 24th, 2011

While U.S. retailers—including Macy’s and JCPenney—are just starting to get comfortable with item-level RFID, a pair of German supermarket chains is already taking the next step—tagging associates, too. By using active tags, the chains are able to not only handle access to sensitive areas but flag when an employee has been in a freezer too long and may need help.

The grocers, ALDI and Lidl, wanted to offer hands-free access to security areas, said this report from RFID Journal. “Lidl installed a reader inside the freezer near its entrance. When a person with a transponder arrives, the ID number is recognized, unlocks the door and allows him entrance,” the story said. “As he remains in the freezer, the reader continues to read the tag once each second. If it is still reading the tag in 15 minutes, it triggers a loud siren that can be heard outside the freezer.” It’s long been argued that RFID can deliver retail ROI, but only if retailers forget what vendors have promised and start getting creative about discovering their own ways to profitably use the tags to do what can’t easily be done any other way. Looks like ALDI and Lidl have already started thinking outside the box—and inside the freezer.…

When Choosing Customer VIPs, Is It Time To Ignore Purchase History And Focus On Social-Media Clout?

August 17th, 2011
It's a time-honored retail tradition to identify—and try and pamper—the group of best (most profitable) customers. But social media has provided a new way to define VIP shoppers, with "most influential" having the potential to trump "spends the most." Consider: Who do you want to take care of first and in the most boot-lick fashion? The person who personally spends $100 thousand a year with your store or someone whose friends and followers spend a total of $25 million? Is someone with a huge number of Twitter followers, Facebook friends or a popular shopping blog more worthy of the royal treatment than someone who personally spends a lot?

Granted, there are shopping carts full of complexities and nuances in analyzing such profiles—generating a meaningful influence rate, if you will—but that's where the fun comes in. Even worse, beyond those analytical complexities, there's the issue of how to get this data in front of the eyes of store associates and also how to do it in a timely matter. Of course, to start things off, there needs to be a reliable way to identify these influencers as they enter your store.Read more...

In-Store Mobile Sounds Great, But Who’s Watching Out For Thieves?

August 11th, 2011
A comment from a reader on an E-Commerce Web site caught my eye. Forget about improving POS terminals for mobile, he said. It should work like this: I see something I want to buy. I scan the tag with my phone. I type in my PIN. Bang—it's mine. That sounds like the perfect merger of in-store and M-Commerce—no more lines at the cash wrap for the retailer, instant gratification for the customer. There's just one nagging problem. OK, there are lots of problems, but consider this one: When everyone is walking out the door with their items in hand, how do you tell what's been bought and what's being stolen?

Clearly it can be done—Apple Stores let roving associates complete transactions and so does Home Depot for some transactions. But doing it on a large scale with easy-to-shoplift items? The obvious answer is to use technology—and it's possible to do with currently available technology. Unfortunately, there's a tradeoff between privacy and loss prevention that customers may not be ready to make just yet.Read more...

California Book Legislation Doesn’t Understand How Retailers Work

July 27th, 2011
If you're selling books in California, you may soon have to handle all customer data very differently. If a piece of legislation now winding its way through the California legislature becomes a law, new restrictions on your record-keeping and file maintenance will extend far beyond the sales of actual books.

The legislation, which has more holes than a chuck of Swiss cheese, would place these burdens on retailers while ignoring a lengthy list of other people in the retail environment who have access to the identical data. The key problem, pens Legal Columnist Mark Rasch: The writers of the legislation didn't think much about how retailers do their magic.Read more...

Macy’s Won’t Make Its RFID Move Until Everyone Else Does

July 27th, 2011
Macy's is quickly moving ahead with its RFID item-level tagging efforts, with one report saying the testing has expanded to six distribution centers. But the retailer is saying that significant additional moves will only happen when key competing retailers make their item-level RFID moves. It seems that the $25 billion chain has figured out the difference between being an industry leader and leading an army of one.

Nowhere is that distinction more critical than with item-level RFID. Suppliers will resist—if they resisted the early Wal-Mart edicts and risked the wrath of Bentonville, they'll resist Macy's—and they'll only sign on either when they see concrete benefits or when the percentage of retailers making the move is so high that they have no option but to comply.Read more...

Hartford Insurance Tells Crate & Barrel, Children’s Place: We Won’t Defend Your POS Lawsuit

July 13th, 2011

As retailers try to master the new terrain of today—with mobile payments, item-level RFID, QR codes on subway walls or digital receipts—it’s good to know the largest insurance companies have their backs. It’s just that some of them seem to be holding knives.

At least that’s the sense one gets from The Hartford (Hartford Fire Insurance), which has now filed federal lawsuits in Illinois and New Jersey to tell two of its retail customers—Children’s Place and Crate & Barrel—that they’re on their own in defending against some POS lawsuits. The specific litigation involves consumers suing the chains because store associates asked for Zip codes at checkout. How prohibited such conduct is remains under debate, but not at Hartford, which has a fine-print exclusion for defending anything “arising out of the violation of a person’s right of privacy created by any state or federal act,” according to copies of both lawsuits. Whatever happened to the days when insurance companies saw their duty as defending their customers? (Answer: They were all April 1.)…

One Cynical Retailer’s Definition Of An Internal IT Client

June 30th, 2011

One retail IT line that is too cynical to not share: In an unrelated interview, a senior IT manager discussed working with certain internal clients—business unit heads who had, until recently, been just colleagues.

What’s the difference, he was asked, between a colleague and an internal client? “Simple,” he said. “An internal client is a colleague who’s had his reasonability removed.”…

Note To Readers: Cleaning Up Premium Confusion

June 23rd, 2011
Some of you may have noticed today that we have added a new pair of graphic icons for the newsletter: one that says Premium and one that says Free. Since we launched Premium back in late April, we have heard from multiple readers who apparently thought—quite mistakenly—that all of our stories are now Premium.

In fact, the vast majority of our stories (often 80 percent or more) are deliberately not Premium. We are hoping that these colorful images will make it easier to tell which stories are Premium and which ones can be read in their entirety by non-Premium subscribers. We're hoping that this clarification cuts back on the frustration of non-Premium readers who click on stories that they can't read fully as well as encourages readers to click on a story, confident that it's entirely available to them. This is also a good time to explain how StorefrontBacktalk decides which stories are Premium.Read more...

Retail CIOs Bullish About Hiring, Not So Much About Starting New Projects

June 8th, 2011
Retail CIOs are much more aggressive than their other sector counterparts in planning for more IT hires, according to new survey figures released this week by Robert Half Technology (RHT), which surveyed 1,400 CIOs (of multiple industries) from companies across the United States with 100 or more employees. But when RHT—at StorefrontBacktalk's request—isolated the answers to solely the 148 retail CIOs surveyed, the conclusions changed.

The most glaring difference was for projected hiring. When compared with the national numbers and against seven other verticals (manufacturing; finance, insurance and real estate; professional services; construction; wholesale; transportation; and business services), retail CIOs were the most optimistic about hiring IT people, tying manufacturing, with 9 percent of both segments' CIOs saying they plan to add staff and one percent saying they plan to reduce staff. The national average is 7 percent to hire and 3 percent to reduce. Three percent of wholesale CIOs say they plan to hire, with zero planning to reduce. Finance CIOs also have 3 percent planning to hire, although 8 percent plan to reduce.Read more...

iPhone Knows Where You’ve Been Since Last Summer

April 21st, 2011

As retailers struggle with geolocation, it turns out that Apple has already done the heavy lifting when it comes to iPhone users. On Wednesday (April 20), two U.K. researchers announced that they found an unencrypted iPhone database that records the user’s location (by latitude and longitude) as many as 100 times each day, based on cell towers, in addition to IP addresses of Wi-Fi access points the phone has connected to and data from geofencing applications. The downside: Some data is wildly inaccurate, and Apple isn’t saying why it’s being stored for as long as a year.

Of course, if there’s a way to create potential privacy problems, Apple will find it—from preserving every iPhone keystroke to recording the user’s heartbeat and guessing the user’s mode of transportation. Unfortunately, because Apple hasn’t explained why this location data is being kept (dating back to whenever iOS 4 was installed on the phone), retailers can’t count on the data being available for anything useful. But maybe Apple just likes keeping track of where its users have been—and always with their best interest at heart. If it was anyone else, this would sound like stalking.…

JCPenney CIO Decides: No RFID For Checkout

April 21st, 2011
The usual assumption about item-level RFID is that it's perfect for managing inventory all the way from the stockroom to store shelves and through the checkout. But if JCPenney CIO Ed Robben is right, that approach is wrong. The 1,100-store chain has been testing RFID just on high-SKU items, such as athletic shoes, bras and denim apparel—and isn't using it at the POS at all.

Of course, testing RFID on just a few items means it's useless at checkout time—unless everything has a tag, you still need scanners for the items that don't. But it also means instead of trying to speed checkout, RFID is only being used to keep shelves stocked in specific categories of goods. By dumping the end-to-end goal, it may be possible to get more real leverage out of RFID—and keep the cost and supplier headaches down, too.Read more...

Apple Wants To Integrate RFID—Both Reader And Transmitter—Into Its Touchscreens

April 21st, 2011
Apple on Tuesday (April 19) added to its lengthy list of Patent applications (its Patent applications now have their own tagline: "All The Privacy Violations That Are Fit To File.") with a way to make the iPhone/iPad's touchscreen act as both an RFID reader and an RFID transmitter. And (for you early Saturday Night Live fans) possibly a dessert topping.

"The RFID antenna can be placed in the touch sensor panel, such that the touch sensor panel can now additionally function as an RFID transponder. No separate space-consuming RFID antenna is necessary. In one embodiment, loops (single or multiple) forming the loop antenna of the RFID circuit (for either reader or tag applications) can be formed from metal on the same layer as metal traces formed in the borders of a substrate," the filing said before describing its potential uses.Read more...

Only 4 Reading Days Before Premium Launches

April 13th, 2011

StorefrontBacktalk will launch its Premium Edition on April 18, just four days from now, on Monday. The reason we’re mentioning this again is to remind everyone that we are offering special 50 percent off pre-launch pricing. In other words, the exact same Premium service on April 18 will cost half as much on April 17. If you want to still have full access to all of our top stories (and all of the other goodies that come with the Premium subscription), doing it now is the cost-effective move.

Our site license options are also half-off during the pre-launch period (which has barely four days left). Our fear is that many readers will not focus on this until April 18, when they start running into firewalls when they try to read key stories and columns. And when they then subscribe, they won’t be able to take advantage of the pre-launch deals. The pre-launch deals were created specifically to give our long-time readers a break, so we want to make sure we do everything we can to remind everyone before it’s too late. To take advantage of our pre-launch deal, please click here.…

Loading Dock Chaos: CIO Had No Idea What His Passwords Could Do

March 30th, 2011
What happens when the keys to a retailer's supply chain show up on Google? In the case of one multi-billion-dollar regional chain this week, it resulted in the ability of anyone to change the information of all loads expected at the retailer's distribution centers—dates, times, contents of the load, number of pieces, weight, pallets, the product ready date and the vendor call date.

In short, in the hands of an evil-minded competitor (in retail, are there any other kinds?), that Google-provided password could do a huge amount to slow down a rival, in addition to knowing inventory shipment plans so they can be countered. It represents a critical security breach—and one that started with the simple decision to put a confidential manual in a Web site subdirectory. That single password—which was printed in that Google-available PDF—unlocked a third-party's servers and revealed a supply-chain security hole large enough to drive a fleet of Mack trucks through.Read more...

L.L. Bean RFID Trial Ties Products Being Touched With Digital Displays

February 17th, 2011
Approaching a product display table at her local L.L. Bean store, a consumer picks up a pair of boots that she thinks might work with a just-purchased outfit. Those same boots are equipped with a passive RFID tag, which detects the specific product being picked up, calculates the speed of its ascent and concludes that a customer is interested. A nearby digital display then starts running a video ad for those boots.

This L.L. Bean trial, which started in January, is trying to see whether highly targeted video—keyed into specific consumer actions—will push sales beyond traditional digital ads. The trial raises some interesting marketing issues, such as whether today's younger consumers (who have been inundated with fast-paced background videos since birth) will be influenced by these videos. Heck, will they even notice? This is an especially critical point, given that many of these videos are without sound.Read more...


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