Top Stories


Parsing Wal-Mart’s Web Plan: How Far To Push The Stores

January 19th, 2012
Few statements are parsed as aggressively for hidden signals and clues as those from Wal-Mart corporate. And few topics have to be handled more delicately than how aggressively Wal-Mart senior management will push merged-channel strategies on its stores. Therefore, the statement issued Monday (Jan. 16) by Wal-Mart about its new E-Commerce chief and how he is expected to interact with stores is getting a lot of close inspection.

Wal-Mart has recently been trying to more closely align stores with various online, mobile and social efforts. But like all major chains, brick-and-mortar management resistance is non-trivial.Read more...


Wal-Mart’s Stealth Social Strategy: Pretend This Isn’t About Customers

January 18th, 2012
Retail chains have been using Facebook and other social media to connect with customers for years, but now someone is trying to use it to acquire new suppliers—and, astonishingly, it's Wal-Mart. On Wednesday (Jan. 18), the retail giant launched a contest to let would-be suppliers pitch their products with YouTube videos, which customers can vote on to choose their favorite products. The winners get a chance to have Wal-Mart sell their wares online or in-store.

But what's really clever is how the contest uses social media as stealth customer engagement—an area where Wal-Mart hasn't been exactly brilliant in the past.Read more...


With Google’s Social/SEO Mashup, Your Teams Are On A Collision Course

January 11th, 2012
After years of making search-engine optimization tweaks to E-Commerce sites to get as high in those search results as possible, retailers are about to face a much more complicated SEO situation. On Tuesday (Jan. 10), Google announced it will now push up search results from Google+ high in its search rankings. The result: Retail sites will suddenly be pushed down in the list of search results by something outside of their SEO control.

But that's just the start. Does anyone really expect that Google won't take this further—and that your traditional SEO and social media teams aren't about to collide?Read more...


Want To Push Social Media? Have You Considered Using Your Stores?

January 10th, 2012
How's this for ironic? Retailers complain about how difficult it is to get shoppers to explore their social media efforts. And yet these same retailers have the almost undivided attention of these shoppers, often for hours every month, in an environment where the retailer has complete control of the surroundings, the store layout and the staff.

Almost all retail marketing efforts are based on the not-so-simple premise of getting people to purchase from them, either online or in person. The problem, pens Retail Columnist Todd Michaud, is likely a mesh of old-mentality thinking with a heavy dose of channel conflict.Read more...


Amazon’s Latest Patent: Guessing Religion Based On Giftwrap

January 4th, 2012
Amazon is floating the idea—via a patent filing—of launching a social service. Whether it would be a dating site or a potential business partner finder or just a more intelligent way of choosing who to hang with online, that's not clear.

But it is clear that Amazon is drooling over its vast CRM files and trying to figure out how much money it can make off them.Read more...

Don’t Rush To Mine Customer Reviews After Christmas. You Won’t Like What You Get

December 15th, 2011
A U.K. buying site that tracks the frequency of online customer reviews said on December 8 that retailers shouldn't expect a flood of product reviews on the run-up to Christmas. If the usual trends hold, there should be a lull in reviews between October and New Year's when the pace of review writing should pick up again, according to

As obvious as that seems (after all, how can a gift recipient review a gift until it's actually opened?), there may be a few more subtleties in when retailers can expect reviews—and what type of reviews they can expect.Read more...

Amazon Chutzpa: Do Unto Others What You Block

December 14th, 2011
When Amazon launched a one-day promotion this month aimed at getting its customers to go into brick-and-mortars and select items they wanted to buy at Amazon for a 5 percent discount, it was engaging in a deliciously ironic act.

Why? Because although what it was doing to those physical stores was likely legal, had those stores tried doing the same to Amazon, it would have been illegal, thanks to Amazon's posted policies. That policy phrasing is not even universal—or even common— among major E-tailers, pens Legal Columnist Mark Rasch.Read more...

Next StorefrontBacktalk Newsletter Will Be Published January 5th

December 14th, 2011

As is our tradition, StorefrontBacktalk shuts down for the last two weeks in December, due to the fact that y’all are far too busy (a) supporting the biggest selling weeks of the year until December 25th, (b) supporting the biggest returns-and-exchanges week of the year after December 25th and (c) closing the quarterly books until December 31st on what everyone hopes will be a bigger year than 2010.

That means our next regular weekly issue will arrive on January 5th, 2012. In the meantime, everything else will still be live (the Web sites, our Kindle version, our Twitter tweets, our mobile sites, etc.). And we’ll, as always, send out breaking news alerts if circumstances merit. …

Interested In Advertising In StorefrontBacktalk In 2012?

December 12th, 2011

A message from our beloved business side: As the NRF Big Show happens next month, StorefrontBacktalk has a couple of last-minute slots for anyone wanting to communicate with NRF attendees. In mid-January, as our readers leave their postmortem holiday shopping meetings with the list of everything that went wrong, every feature management wants to add and a wishlist of products to make it all, it’s a nice time message.

We will also be adding several content channels next year—including several new weekly podcast series, more monthlies, events in addition to our usual weekly and monthly newsletters, and Web sites—and if your marketing people have any interest in getting involved, we now have new opportunities. Some of these new channels were specifically created to enable smaller vendors, with much more limited resources, into our community. If your marketers want to get your brand in the middle of these discussions, please drop us a note.…

Google Trial Sends Home Depot Shoppers Away To Lowe’s

December 8th, 2011
A mobile vendor who was testing out the in-store Google Maps application this week at a Home Depot store in Florida discovered an unexpected result. While standing inside a Home Depot—which is one of a handful of Google partners on this project—and just feet away from the store's paint aisle, the tester called up the store's inside layout and asked the app where the paint aisle was.

The Home Depot partner app quickly responded: At the Lowe's store three blocks away. It's becoming clear that retailers need to be thinking about—and asking—a lot more questions about in-store maps and mobile navigation.Read more...

Wal-Mart’s Shopycat Facebook Sends Customers To Other Sites—Really Rarely, Though

December 1st, 2011
Wal-Mart on Thursday (Dec. 1) officially rolled out its Shopycat Facebook app, which lets consumers see WalmartLabs-fueled gift suggestions for all of your Facebook friends, based on their posts and stated likes/dislikes. Wal-Mart said that "Shopycat is designed to trigger gift ideas for friends ranging from music, books and movies to games and electronics, making gifting more fun and saving on time and the pressures of discovering the perfect gift." About time that someone put an end to this pressure to find the perfect gift. Effort, thought and attention are simply making America weak. When I think gifts for loved ones, I think compromise and just get it over with. (And yes, that fits in so well with the image that Wal-Mart is trying to shake.)

The idea is indeed interesting, as the Wal-Mart algorithms have already done the work of predicting what would be desirable. Then again, does it factor in that something of strong interest to someone has likely already been purchased by—or for—them? One nice touch about Shopycat is that it doesn't technically limit its suggestions to and Wal-Mart stores. But testing on the app certainly shows that the overwhelming majority of choices are—coincidentally—only on more...

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...

Pizza Kiosk Raises Creative In-Store Options

November 30th, 2011
The mundane underappreciated customer kiosk has been undergoing some radical changes recently. Among the most far-reaching and/or strangest: one that serves live crabs, offers ice cream in exchange for a literally measurable smile, a porn kiosk that asks a lot of specific questions and promises privacy protections, a Pepsi social kiosk that allows you to buy soda for strangers, a convenience store sandwich machine that uses privacy to boost sales, a wine kiosk that detects if you're already drunk and a machine that measures customers for custom suits.

But this new kiosk out of Europe may just take the record (although that live crab-dispensing kiosk is pretty hard to beat). It makes pizza—from scratch. This thing shows customers its realtime process of kneading dough, forming the round, adding tomato sauce and toppings and then baking it—all in three minutes. A kiosk that creates and delivers a fresh pizza may not play well in every retailer environment, but it's worth a shot. Honestly, Nordstrom, would a pizza kiosk in your aisles really kill you?Read more...

Could Lord & Taylor’s “Claim Your Prom Dress” Effort Be Improved With ZIP Codes And Some Pull-Downs?

November 16th, 2011
Lord & Taylor recently tried an experiment where high-school girls were able to purchase a prom dress and then claim it for that event at that school, to theoretically make it less likely some other girl would show up at the prom wearing the same dress. The idea is interesting but limited, in the sense that the same dress is being sold at other retailers. It also suffers from the problem of only working when the customer bothers to go through the tagging process.

Why not use ZIP codes (IP address locations are typically too inaccurate and/or cover too wide an area to be practical for a prom no-duplicates strategy) and a high school pull-down menu (with a behind-the-scenes list of each school's primary ZIP codes) to flag likely repeats? This approach pushes this idea beyond high-school proms and could be used to flag apparel conflicts at any type of event or formal function. Weddings? Theater? This could even be helpful beyond events. What about giving an option to indicate the name of an employer? Depending on the size of the employer, it might be nice to know if that business suit you've been eyeing has already been purchased by anyone else within that company.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.…

EMV Is Simply Not Worth The Effort. Not Even A Little

November 16th, 2011
Ever since Visa reversed itself and embraced EMV this summer, GuestView Columnist Trinette Huber—who by day is information privacy and security manager for the 2,700-store Sinclair Oil company—has been wondering why. She has concluded it's not for the security. For the last five years, Huber pens, she has been advising, cajoling, arguing and sometimes arm-twisting when it comes to PCI compliance for Sinclair's distributors and c-store operators. "We've been waiting for technology that protects credit-card data. Stop coming back to the trough to get retailers to pay for something that doesn't remove PCI compliance requirements and protect online transactions."

Huber adds: "Chip-and-PIN doesn't eliminate your requirement to be PCI compliant. You still have to do that. If we adopt Europe's old technology, the card data will still pass in the clear. You still need to spend all of that money securing your point-of-sales, auditing your network and reporting on your compliance status. Well, maybe not reporting to Visa—if you meet its requirements—but there's still MasterCard, American Express and Discover."Read more...

Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger and Macy’s Discover The Cost Of Not Paying Enough Attention To Your Social Sites

November 10th, 2011
In retail, social media shares a very narrow attribute with CRM and Web analytics. All three were initially undermined because of the way they were sold to retailers. Specifically, the amount of effort required to extract value from them was criminally understated. A report this week showed the impact of such sales malpractice and slammed some of the largest retailers—including Wal-Mart, Costco, Kmart, Kroger and Macy's—for either ignoring complaints on their own Facebook pages or being ludicrously slow in responding.

Costco, Kmart and Kroger took the top dishonors, with each chain responding to zero of the complaints lodged against it during the review period (five working days in September). Wal-Mart ignored 41 percent of all legitimate complaints, Macy's ignored 35 percent of its complaints, Bloomingdale's ignored 20 percent, Nordstrom ignored 20 percent, Sears ignored 11 percent and Safeway ignored only five percent.Read more...

Toys”R”Us Trial Shows Brilliance—And Folly—Of eBay

November 10th, 2011
Toys "R" Us is backing into in-store mobile payments by serving as the guinea pig for an interesting eBay trial. Smartphone-equipped toy shoppers will be able to purchase any Toys "R" Us product by scanning the barcode with RedLaser, now owned by eBay, with the mobile app fully processing the transaction. There's a huge catch, though: Any payment form other than eBay's PayPal need not apply.

The shortsighted payment limitations aside, this Toys "R" Us trial is quite clever and it showcases what eBay can do in the mobile space. Consistent with the mobile wallet pitch PayPal itself is making to retailers, parent company eBay's trial showcases the strength of being platform-agnostic. This trial can work just as well on an iPhone or an Android. (Note: eBay's information seems contradictory on how multi-platform it will initially be, however.) On the flip side, Google Wallet can work just as well on Visa and MasterCard. Therein lies the frustration of the Toys "R" Us trial.Read more...

Apple To Rip Up In-Store, Mobile Channels

November 3rd, 2011
Apple is about to complete its conversion to a merged-channel retailer—and maybe put its first stake in the ground for mobile payments, too. Most critically, Apple is changing how it doles out bonuses and commissions, which is the only way to get anyone's attention. Sales will no longer be credited to the division (online or in-store) that collects the money, but to whoever actually delivers the product. On November 3, Apple is expected to roll out a new system that will merge its in-store and mobile-commerce channels, offer a 12-minute turnaround time for M-Commerce orders and reward brick-and-mortar stores for pushing customers to shop online and pick up in-store. And—as you may have heard—it's letting customers do self-checkout, too.

If that sounds like an afterthought, it very nearly is, even though self-checkout alone would be a big deal for most chains. What Apple is primarily trying to do is demolish the wall between stores and M-Commerce. It may not work—that 12-minute turnaround promise may just be impossible, and some of Apple's plans for prioritizing customers can collapse when things get busy. But if it does work, it may also represent Apple's demonstration of how it plans to offer mobile payments to other retailers—without either NFC or mimicking a plastic card.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...

Amazon’s Bezos Pushed A Platform. Should You?

October 19th, 2011
A Google engineer's accidentally published rant on October 12 made headlines because he ripped into Google's hottest new property, calling Google+ "a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking" and "a pathetic afterthought." But ironically, that's the least interesting thing Googlista Steve Yegge had to say—and his real point has serious implications for retailers.

That crucial point, buried in Yegge's 4,800-word rant: Google (just like most retail chains) has built a company on top of a collection of applications. Amazon (where Yegge worked for six years) has built its enormous E-Commerce success because it is not just a bundle of retail applications. It's a platform that lets customers interact, outside retailers sell and other third parties connect. But Amazon didn't start that way. And how it made the transition should have retail chains thinking hard about whether that's the right approach for them, too.Read more...

Amazon Accused Of Taking Payment Verification Data And Using It To Access Public Records

October 19th, 2011
In the middle of a strange lawsuit against—one where an actress is suing because she says Amazon revealed her correct age—is a very serious payment-card IT accusation: that Amazon processed a payment and then used the card-verification data to gather more data and then published it. To be fair, the lawsuit itself is a dubious document, with some statements that seem clearly false and others that seem to not recognize how Amazon and its Internet Movie Database unit ( function. But setting aside those issues—which certainly raise questions about the validity of the Amazon accusations—the charges bring up an interesting issue.

Is it illegal, or even against the various card brand rules or PCI's rules, to use information from the confirmation process to access public information and to then use it? Amazon is not accused of publishing the verification data directly (which would have raised very different issues) but of using that data to track down public records. And if Amazon indeed did that—and that's still a big "if"—is that a legitimate area for retailers to use to grow CRM databases?Read more...

Mobile Tracking At The Mall: The CRM Potential Is Stunning

October 19th, 2011
When a major Australian shopping mall next month starts tracking consumers by their mobile phones, they will try and pacify privacy advocates by stressing that no customer names nor phone numbers will be given to retailers. Truth be told, the tracking information that they will collect will be far more valuable.

The vendor behind the trial, a U.K. firm called Path Intelligence, pledged that "no mobile phone usernames or numbers could be accessed" and that "all we do is log the movement of a phone around an area and aggregate this to provide trend data for businesses." But what if that phone-tracking data is linked with security cameras and/or POS systems? What if a mall representative called one of its retail residents and said, "We're now tracking a woman who has spent $980 in the last hour and she has just walked into your store. For a $300 fee, I'll tell you exactly where she's standing right now. Deal?"Read more...

Wal-Mart’s Facebook Deal A Clever Way To Awaken Lethargic Store Managers

October 13th, 2011
Wal-Mart on Tuesday (Oct. 11) announced a deal with Facebook to launch more than 3,500 store-specific Facebook pages. This move could mark the beginning of a key positioning change—both with the world's largest retailer and the many other chains likely to follow Wal-Mart's strategy—of thinking of the Web face of Wal-Mart being one chain instead of thousands of local stores.

Beyond the obvious—strengthening the local friendly face of the neighborhood store—this could alert corporate to stores that are resonating with their audiences and those that are not. It's not unusual for chains to allow specific stores to have very different product mixes based on the manager's read on local customers. In turn, this could enable those differences to be much more pronounced than is practical today with a single site. This all presumes, though, that customer interactions with local Facebook sites—especially as measured by the number of "likes" a site gets—is a meaningful metric. That's far from being a given.Read more...

Mobile POS’s Unfixable Single Point Of Failure: Wi-Fi

October 13th, 2011
Just when you thought you had figured out how to deploy in-store mobile devices, something comes along to remind you that it's not that simple. Last month, the FCC ordered 20 small online retailers to stop selling illegal devices that jam the signals for mobile phones, GPS and Wi-Fi. No surprise there—but also not much impact, because such devices are easily available from other online retailers. That means anyone willing to pay as little as $80 could walk into a store in your chain and jam the Wi-Fi that your mobile POS depends on.

It's a classic single-point-of-failure problem, and it could be frighteningly disruptive—especially since this holiday season will be the first at many stores with lots of in-store mobile devices in use, and almost all retailers are using Wi-Fi to keep them connected. A saboteur who uses a pocket-size jammer wouldn't have access to payment-card information, but what's supposed to be an impressive demonstration of retail technology would just irritate customers and frustrate associates—especially during the high-volume times that mobile POS should be a relief. And that's just from an intentional saboteur. Unintentional Wi-Fi jamming could have even worse effects.Read more...


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