Analyst Corner

When the System Takes Over

Categories: Uncategorized

For the millions (and sometimes billions) of dollars that retailers spend on their IT systems, it is both amusing and painful to see those systems thwart sales. If the primary purpose of any business is to make money, shouldn’t all systems work together to make that as easy as possible? The following story took place in mid-December (names have been omitted to protect both the innocent and the guilty.)

The President and CEO of a local company thought that it would be a nice Christmas present to get each of his 680 employees a $50 gift card to a major, national, general merchandise store. Little did he know that the store was ill-equipped to process a $34,000 transaction.

Sensing that this was probably going to be a somewhat unique transaction, the CEO had someone call ahead to the store manager to ensure all would go smoothly. The store manager asked for FOUR (4!!!!) DAYS to scan and process the gift cards. At the appointed time (set by the store manager) the CEO arrived to find that the cards were not ready for pickup and that at least another hour was needed. So, the CEO waited, until he decided his time would be better spent waiting at his office.

He had been told that for such a large transaction, the retailer preferred that payment be made via credit or debit card. Once again, hoping to bypass any of the easily imagined issues, the CEO called and made sure his company debit card was temporarily authorized to process a $40,000 transaction. Four hours after the four day waiting period was over, the retailer was ready to process the transaction. The CEO went to the POS, swiped his card as requested by the EFT/Signature Capture device, and almost had a breakdown when not only the POS terminal locked up, but all 680 gift cards had been voided. The attendant (no store manager was actually seen or heard during this entire saga, expect on the phone the first day) said they would need 24 hours to reprocess the order. Now a lesser man (me for instance) would have taken this as a definitive sign that giving each employee $50 cash would be infinitely easier. The intrepid CEO was simply becoming more determined.

He arrived at the store after the prescribed 24 hours, and found that someone had the foresight to split the gift cards into 7 bundles, believing that this would help keep the POS from crashing. The first bundle was totaled, payment was requested, the card was swiped and&..behold! the transaction was processed. 1 down, 6 to go. The second bundle was totaled, payment requested&&card declined. It turns out that the bank (a large, regional bank) strictly prohibits transactions over $5000 at two specific general merchandise/discount retailers because of the high fraud occurrences (specifically involving flat screen TVs) at those retailers. After a series of calls, this bank-specific issue was resolved, so back to the POS we go. Upon swiping the next bundle of cards&..POS failure. Apparently, the POS system refused to believe there could be a second $4,000-$5,000 gift card transaction on the same day.

A young employee attempted to call his IT help desk, but let the CEO know that the help desk was of no help due to an apparent language barrier. The retailer’s solution? Wait 24 more hours and they would break the gift cards down into 14 or 15 bundles, thus circumventing their own controls. They also let the CEO know that if he had initially brought a check, all of this would have been avoided (a dubious, not to mention disingenuous, claim at best).

In the end, the CEO got his cards, and a Merry Christmas was had by all. But we would be remiss if we did not point out a few lessons learned from this saga.

All of the controls that were in place in an effort to avoid fraud made sense. The lack of having an informed associate who could override the controls, the lack of a clearly understood procedure for how to do so, the unfathomable amount of time the retailer needed to process the cards, the fact that no store manager was ever present; none of this makes sense. The employees that oversaw the $34,000 transaction were all under the age of 25 (the CEO asked) and none had more than 2 years experience. It would seem as though this retailer believes that the systems it uses are so foolproof, no experienced, more mature employees are necessary. While such an employee would not have guaranteed success, it would seem as though such an employee might at least have had some idea how to expedite the process. It also seems ludicrous that no store manager was ever called to provide insight, assistance, or guidance. No matter how advanced the IT systems retailers install, this is simply another reminder that there is no substitute for a well-trained, experienced, educated, and equipped staff.