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StorefrontBacktalk Launches Premium Edition

February 16th, 2011
Starting April 18, StorefrontBacktalk will launch a whole new range of Premium features, including special monthly reports, exclusive private discussion groups (CIO-only, franchisee-only, CFO-only, etc.) and Premium-only access to StorefrontBacktalk's top stories. Best of all, readers who subscribe to the Premium edition before it launches on April 18 will get a 50 percent discount on the subscription price—locked in for the first year.

The majority—if not the vast majority— of recent StorefrontBacktalk stories will still be available to read for free. So will our highly moderated discussion forums, which won't waste your time with spam and vendor pitches. But readers who aren't Premium subscribers will only be able to see the very beginning of Premium stories and columns—and they won't have any access at all to the Premium forums, private discussion groups, monthly reports or the archives of StorefrontBacktalk stories that are more than 30 days old.Read more...


Introducing New StorefrontBacktalk-Style Discussion Forums

February 2nd, 2011
The reader discussion part of StorefrontBacktalk has always been crucial to us; it's a critical part of the sense of community we want to create. Ideally, this function is less about what our writers have to say to you, the readers, and more about what you have to say to each other. That's why we're introducing today our StorefrontBacktalk-style discussion forums: "Beyond The Story."

It's called Beyond The Story because our discussion forums thus far have been limited to comments on individual stories. And we policed those comments strictly, making sure that they were indeed about the story they were attached to and that they were non-promotional, non-offensive and respectful. (Well, as respectful as IT professionals debating RFID, PCI, CRM and Mobile are likely to get. We don't seek miracles here.)Read more...


RadioShack’s New CEO: More Proof That IT Experience Does Indeed Matter

January 25th, 2011

When RadioShack announced Monday (Jan. 24) that its board had chosen CFO Jim Gooch as its new CEO, it went out of its way to mention Gooch’s background in supply chain management and IT. This is just the latest example of retail boards showing new found respect for IT experience when sizing up folk for the big CEO corner office, including Home Depot, which is watching its own CFO’s IT chops when evaluating her for the CEO gig plus related IT respect demonstrations from Sears, Macy’s and Borders.

This IT love-fest is consistent with a move—started about 5 to 10 years ago—of assigning the CFO to oversee IT. Before that, it was more common for CIOs to report into COOs or often CEOs. The shift to having CIOs report into the financial group is an acknowledgement that IT is becoming more strategic and that it’s an area that CFOs must master if they want to run the whole ship.…


Citi: RFID Is Back (No); Nordstrom Mobile Payment (Maybe)

January 20th, 2011
When it comes retail technology sophistication, sometimes culture trumps everything else. How else to explain that Citigroup's annual report comparing major retailers' IT sophistication cites the same chains—in the same sequence—as the least and most IT-clever as it did a year ago? Is it really nature versus nurture that keeps Costco, BJ's Wholesale, Family Dollar, Supervalu and Safeway at the bottom (least sophisticated) and CVS, Walgreens, JCPenney, Target and Kohl's at the top?

Citigroup has long been considered the most influential technology tracker on Wall Street, so these annual lists are not to be dismissed. IT used to be a backstage corporate function in Wall Street's eyes, but there are more indicators lately that the money folk are carefully watching the tech folk.Read more...


Sears CIO Lasts 20 Months: Kasbe Out

December 22nd, 2010
The $44 billion 3,900-store Sears chain has one of the lengthiest histories of any major U.S. retailer. But given how long its stores have lasted, its latest CIO's tenure lasted not very long at all.

Timothy Kasbe, a celebrated IT exec who arrived at the chain in February 2009 after having served as the CIO of India's largest retail chain, quietly left the company early last month. Very quietly.Read more...

RFID Buttons: Cute Or Ominous?

December 8th, 2010
A Chinese RFID manufacturer has started shipping RFID tags designed to look—and apparently function—as real buttons. They also can be washed with no harm to the sealed RFID mechanism.

However, by fueling the fears of every anti-RFID privacy advocate, these faux buttons may do far more harm than good. To be fair, these may not be faux buttons, in that they may actually function as buttons. In which case, they're not faux: They're Trojan horses. But in this version of the classic Trojan War tale, the soldiers inside the horse might turn around and attack their retail Greek creators.Read more...

Bored With Your Current IT Gig? DSW May Be Able To Help

October 28th, 2010
The CIO of $2 billion shoe chain DSW is putting out feelers for a senior retail IT manager, one whose background focuses on applications (not infrastructure), merchandise planning distribution, allocation and logistics.

Background in "store systems would also be interesting" for this position, said DSW CIO Carlos Cherubin. "This is a new position, born of the fact that our organization is growing," he said, referring to its current 210-person IT operation (internal IT staff of 170 plus about 40 IT contractors). "We're a 200-person shop day-to-day," Cherubin said.Read more...

Note To PR People: Come And Get Us

October 28th, 2010

Like most media outlets these days, we here at StorefrontBacktalk get deluged with PR people pitching stories about their clients. But also like most media outlets, very few of those pitches are appropriate for us.

To help, we have crafted a page with our best-kept secrets about how to successfully pitch a story to us. It starts with understanding our audience and how we try and differentiate our stories. (Note: This particular blurb is a horrible example of what our typical stories are like, but it’s a pretty good example of an irony, so at least we have that.) So for PR professionals only: Please check out our PR tip cheat sheet, and your chances of getting a story placed will soar.…

Why It’s So Darn Hard To Change Payment Infrastructure

October 14th, 2010
One of the attractions of mobile payments for retailers has been the hope of all-but-eliminating traditional interchange fees. In what might be the perfect illustration of why such a shift is so difficult, the vendor that has most aggressively been pushing an entirely Visa/MasterCard-free infrastructure last week (Oct. 4) announced a deal with card processor Fifth Third—one that in effect means it will be using the very same infrastructure it wanted to replace.

The problem for alternative payments isn't just doing the things that conventional payment cards do at lower cost. It's also breaking through the lack of familiarity that customers, banks and even retailers have with new payment approaches. Visa and MasterCard remain in the POS driver’s seat because of their network, but also because they're a known quantity. And as much as retailers want cheaper alternatives, the Bling Nation/Fifth Third deal illustrates how much of a challenge it is to buck the current infrastructure.Read more...

Patent Says How To Improve RFID Read Rates: Turn Off Those Scanners!

October 14th, 2010

It’s hard enough to track inventory using RFID tags; read rates are low enough that tags are often misread the first time. It’s even worse in a warehouse, where multiple RFID readers can interfere with each other. The Patent Office is offering one of those good news/bad news scenarios. Good News: A university patent claims to dramatically improve RFID read rates, which sounds like a huge advantage for retailers trying to manage inventory. Bad News: The patented technique cuts interference by automatically shutting down all RFID readers in the area except one.

That makes this approach useless if inventory employees are using handheld scanners. On the other hand, it could still work for warehouse areas with fixed RFID scanners that automatically check inventory. Rapidly turning all those scanners on and off could especially help with frozen or liquid items, where signals are particularly hard to detect, according to inventor Jagannathan Sarangapani of the Missouri University of Science and Technology. But how well the technique actually works in the real world is unknown; no RFID vendor has yet licensed the patent.…

A Digital Signage Network Paid For By Suppliers And Then Taken Home By Consumers

October 5th, 2010
Few store managers question the power of well-placed digital signage, but the cost for acquiring and maintaining such systems can be daunting. What if retailers could get full access to a network of hundreds of customized pieces of digital signage, which they could place anywhere in their stores, displaying any message, all of it being paid for by a supplier?

The only price in this Faustian deal: You need to let your customers take the signs home with them, after they've paid you $40 or more for the privilege.Read more...

NFC Should Stand For “Needs Further Clarification”

September 30th, 2010
Near Field Communications (NFC) is the latest means by which the payments industry is attempting to force a new technology into an old role—that of payment card. Furthermore, the acronym is being used to rebrand existing payment initiatives that only scratch the surface of true NFC capabilities, pens GuestView Columnist Nick Holland.

The real danger here, he writes, is that the larger NFC value proposition might be poisoned if NFC is pigeonholed as just another card replacement. If that happens, it would effectively kill retailer and consumer adoption.Read more...

StorefrontBacktalk Now On Kindle

September 30th, 2010

The next time you’re stuck on an airplane with just your Kindle and you want to know what other retailers are working on to make your life miserable when you land, fear not. StorefrontBacktalk is now available as native content on Kindle.

It goes beyond the headlines, and the Kindle supposedly updates this content when you’re near a connection so you can read it when you’re not. (I have to trust my Kindle-carrying colleagues to tell me how our content looks. Personally, if something can’t give me a paper cut while reading it, why bother?)…

Where Will—And Where Should—PCI And Mobile Head?

September 23rd, 2010

If retailers could do anything, what would be the top five things they’d change about PCI? What about mobile? Which mobile interactions will be deployed first and which will backburnered? And how far are merged channel (the last element of the multi-channel to cross-channel to merged-channel triumvirate) efforts going to be adopted by June of next year?

To try and get answers, StorefrontBacktalk and Forrester Research on Wednesday (Sept. 22) launched a research project on these issues and we’d love to have you share your views with us. Responses will be published anonymously, in aggregate only. Other topics in the survey include customer service techniques, global distribution, E-Commerce and store investment priorities, and CRM strategies. If you’d like to be included in this study, the survey is the best place to start. We’ll be publishing the results shortly before the holiday insanity begins. …

Mobile RFID Reader Shortage?

August 23rd, 2010

Everywhere else in the world, the cliché is “When it rains, it pours.” But for retailers now focusing on RFID projects, a more apt phrase would be “When it rains, it’s a drought.” That’s because a major financial investment firm is reporting a sharp mobile RFID reader shortage. The cause: lots of RFID projects, with Wal-Mart’s 20,000-unit-order leading the way.

The report comes from investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co., according to SupplyChainDigest. Beyond Wal-Mart, the reasons cited were “supply constraints that have lasted for months in basic electrical components that have caused delivery problems in a wide number of high tech gear, including mobile devices”; a 23,000-customer order from a European logistics company; and the recent leap in popularity of mobile–versus fixed–RFID readers. “A quick check at ScanSource, a distributor that sells exclusively to other resellers and VARs, showed about half of the models of Motorola 9090-G mobile RFID terminals were in-stock, and the other half showing as ‘call for availability,'” the story said. RFID: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.…

Franchise IT: Trying To Not Knock Over The House Of Cards

August 5th, 2010
Implementing retail technology in a franchise environment can be like building a house of cards. Each franchisee is likely to be slightly different than the next or have a slightly different requirement or slightly different existing technology. Although each of these variances may be small and seemingly unimportant when viewed alone, the more variances there are--and the longer they remain outside the standard--the more unstable the foundation of the "house" becomes.

But, argues Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud, this situation gets even more challenging because the person who had the implementation role before you could have stacked the deck against you. It is much easier to say "yes" to a request for something different than it is to say "no." In most cases, these requests will genuinely move the business in the right direction. But that's a double whammy: It means your predecessor may have created a field of variance landmines that you must painfully discover on your own.Read more...

RFID: Combining Low Read Rates With Cyberthief-Friendly Long-Distance Accessibility

August 5th, 2010

Among the more fascinating tidbits to come out of the Black Hat/Defcon show in Las Vegas last week was a demonstration that an RFID tag could be read from 217 feet away. The tester used two large antennas and ham radio equipment, reported Dark Reading

But retailers have been discovering the ability to monitor RFID at very long distances for years. That’s the irony of RFID. How can something with such low read-rates at a distance of two inches—when you absolutely need it to be read—also be readable by a corporate spy across the parking lot? Admit it: Technology (and cats, by the way) not so secretly wants us all to fail.…

Wal-Mart’s Item-Level Strategy: Better That Tags Should Be Thrown Out Than Dealt With

July 29th, 2010
When Wal-Mart this week confirmed it has been quietly testing item-level RFID in two Arkansas stores for several months—along with plans to "incrementally roll out [item-level RFID] throughout the chain"—it raised quite a few eyebrows because of the way it's being done. The company is initially only tagging denim jeans, socks and underwear (let's try and ignore the fact that a radio transmitter inside a guy's boxers is nothing shy of creepy), and it's leaving the tags active until customers opt to throw them away.

The reality is that Wal-Mart's gradual deployment makes a lot of sense. The media-repeated cries of privacy invasion are simply silly, based on ludicrously unrealistic assumptions of how easy this data would be to access, assuming anyone had any reason to even try. The most interesting part of the rollout, though, is the tag disposal question.Read more...

GuestView: Wal-Mart Was Wrong To Initially Just Tag Pallets

July 29th, 2010
When Wal-Mart this week confirmed its limited launch of item-level RFID tags, it shouldn't have been news to many in retail. That's what Wal-Mart has said it wanted to do for literally 10 years. The question shouldn't be "Why is Wal-Mart doing this?" as much as "What's different this time? Why is this finally happening now?"

Franz Dill spent 30 years in various technology management roles at Procter & Gamble, the world's largest consumer goods manufacturer, much of it dealing with retail technology concerns. Now two years off of the P&G payroll, he tries to put the new Wal-Mart item-level RFID move into context in this GuestView column. Read more...

Will Senate Bill Force The U.S. To Go Chip-And-PIN?

June 24th, 2010
With Wal-Mart's recent push for Chip-and-PIN in the U.S., the debate has been what could possibly push the banks into supporting such a costly move. One financial blog is making a compelling argument that the U.S. Senate may be about to jump into the U.S. EMV case.

Todd Ablowitz, president of the Double Diamond Group and one of the more interesting payment experts in the U.S. (for us, "interesting" is someone who thinks a well-balanced presentation is where all audience members are pissed-off equally), has been sitting with lobbyists and studying the Durbin bill, currently scheduled to go before a House-Senate conference committee on Thursday (June 24). His conclusion, with a little bit of mildly tortured logic: The bill will strongly incentivize banks to accelerate their acceptance of Chip-and-PIN in the U.S.Read more...

Microsoft’s Mobile Catch-22 Is Getting Consumers To Not Give Up

June 17th, 2010
In the evolving world of mobile and barcodes, one of the most daunting challenges is training consumers to use the technology properly. Of course, you can't really train consumers on Near-Field Communication (NFC), 2D barcodes and Microsoft's Tag Reader. What retailers need is an interface that is so intuitive consumers simply guess how to use these tools correctly.

But therein lies a delicious Catch-22: Once consumers use a technology four or five times, they typically master it and can then proceed effortlessly. The first one or two times, of course, will likely be rough.Read more...

Now On StorefrontBacktalk: One-click Print Formatting, Automatic URLs

June 15th, 2010

Starting this week, each StorefrontBacktalk article has two new features. First, in response to many reader requests, we have now added a print function for each article. Just click on the Print icon (right across from the article’s date) to generate a web page formatted for printing, without page breaks, sidebars or reader comments.

Second, we now automatically add a URL to any content that you copy and paste from an article. Yes, it’s a feature: Instead of copying an entire article to send to someone, now you can copy just the most relevant part and paste it into a message; the URL for the full article is included at no extra charge. Tipping, of course, is always encouraged.…

The M-Commerce Paradox: If You Succeed, You’ll Fail

June 10th, 2010
After we ran a story in the last issue about some Mobile-Commerce experiments at Macy's and Best Buy, one retail exec at a very large chain who has worked extensively with mobile expressed skepticism that some of these projects would ever work at full scale.

"I wonder when people will realize that mobile devices communicate via, ummm, radio?" asked the IT exec. "And that microwave radio signals (which GPS, mobile phones and microwave ovens all use) don‘t transit solid surfaces, especially conductive ones like metal mall roofs, all that well? And that carriers make no promises relative to in-building coverage (and virtually no promises relative to out-of-building coverage)? And the U.S. government makes no promises at all relative to GPS signal penetration or even availability?"Read more...

Sam’s Club Finds Dollars In Charging Customers For Loyalty

June 3rd, 2010
When Wal-Mart's Sam's Club—which makes $47 billion a year on its own—added personalized discounts last summer, it was seen as a traditional way to boost sales through discount coupons.

But what Sam's Club discovered is that it quickly became its own direct revenue stream.Read more...

Will The Subway Save Contactless?

June 3rd, 2010
Contactless payment cards still can't catch a break. This week, New York City's mass transit system began what may be the largest push for contactless payment yet in the U.S. In a trial program that began on Tuesday (June 1), a million riders can use MasterCard contactless payment cards at turnstiles for fares on parts of New York's subway and bus system, along with commuter trains across the Hudson River and some bus lines in New Jersey. It's a six-month, highly visible demonstration of the benefits of contactless cards that might actually get consumers to use the cards that have been sitting in their wallets.

But the next day (June 2), a self-proclaimed hacker was on Canadian television demonstrating once again that both MasterCard and Visa contactless cards can be read with a $10 commercial RFID reader available on eBay.Read more...


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