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The Square Mobile Conundrum: Data Goes In, But It Doesn’t Come Out

Written by Evan Schuman
January 25th, 2012

When a customer walks into a store and gives a payment card to an associate, who charges it on a store-branded mobile device, is that customer interacting with that retailer? If that device is using Square, the answer is “no,” but the customer won’t know that. If an E-mail address is requested, is it for Square or that retailer?

If a marketing opt-in question is posed, who is posing it? And how will customers react when they later learn they weren’t sharing with whom they thought they were sharing? Bad news: This is not hypothetical.

There is a broader issue at play here. With any of the third-party mobile payment efforts—Google Wallet, PayPal, ISIS, maybe even Apple—there is the potential for this type of confusion. If it’s a Macy’s-branded phone being offered by a Macy’s associate inside a Macy’s store, and if the mobile screen asks a permission question, is that Macy’s asking or Google Wallet asking?

In this particular E-mail address situation with Square, though, it’s mostly limited to Square; most of the other players require the consumer to have an account, which means they presumably already have that consumer’s E-mail address.

At the NRF show in New York City this month, IHL President Greg Buzek was running a charity event. (The charity is the Retail Orphan Initiative, known as RetailROI, and it’s quite worthy of support. But I digress.) At the event, lots of retailers were making contributions to help the global orphan efforts and the charity was using Square sleds on mobile devices to process the donations.

The Square interface asked people for their E-mail addresses and many obliged, thinking this was opting into future communications with the charity. But the charity never saw any of those E-mail addresses. They went to Square, and there they stayed.

“People entered their E-mail addresses for receipts and we were stunned to learn that not only were the E-mail addresses not in any reports, there was no option for the donor/customer to opt-in or opt-out,” Buzek said. “A lot has been made about the disruptive nature of Square, particularly among small merchants. However, if the merchant cannot build its customer base and stay in contact with them, the lower cost of processing comes at a huge price. I would surmise that most all consumers, if they give their E-mail address to a retailer for a digital receipt, assume that the retailer will use that E-mail to stay in touch. The fact that there is neither an opt-out nor opt-in option for the customer during the transaction not only leads to confusion but disappointment.”

From Square’s perspective, the situation is quite different. The company is handling the transaction and it seeks only the E-mail address so it can send the electronic receipt. An opt-in for future communications is simply not an issue, said one Square representative.

“We do not save customers’ personal information on merchants’ devices or accounts for security purposes. If they choose to provide an E-mail address during a transaction, they are doing so under the impression that it will be used for a receipt and a receipt only,” the Square representative said. “Based on our privacy policies and governing regulations, we cannot share cardholders’ personal information with (retailers). We are creating a feature that would allow a customer to opt into having their E-mail address or phone number saved, but we don’t currently have a timeline for when this will roll out. In the meantime, any collection of customers’ names, E-mails or other personally identifiable information will have to occur outside of Square.”


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