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Beyond Holiday Ads and Displays: What Can Retailers Do to Ensure Success this Holiday Season?

Guest Blog by Doug Pasquale

The holiday season can never be too long for retailers, but this year presents a unique challenge – only 25 days will be between Black Friday and Christmas to capture peak holiday spending, and every day counts. This critical time can account for 20 to 40 percent of a retailer’s annual sales activity, so it’s no surprise that companies have debuted holiday displays, discounts and ads as early as September in an attempt to make the most out of this key period. The loss of time is even more critical for electronics retailers, who are already hard pressed to deliver on exorbitant levels of demand generated on the heels of recent major smartphone, tablet and wearable technology launches such as the iPhone 5s, the Nike + Sportwatch GPS, and the Samsung Galaxy Note. Retailers need to explore other avenues to surpass their competition and meet consumer demand.

It’s Not Just September Ads and Tree Displays

Morgan Stanley found that shopping malls featured 20 percent more promotions in the third quarter 2013 than the same quarter last year. However, retailers should consider whether there is a better way to compete during the holidays besides breaking out the ornaments and trees before Halloween candy hits the shelves. Those retailers who operate lean and agile supply chains are better able to keep a pulse on swings in demand, deliver goods quickly regardless of the purchasing channel and ensure product availability. By virtue of a shorter peak season, these advantages become critical game-changers.

Embrace a New Supply-Chain Plan

An effective supply-chain execution can mean the difference between delivering products to consumers or losing their business. While changing operations strategies before the holidays may seem ill-advised, the peak season’s distinctive set of logistical circumstances, delivering and stocking requires a unique strategy. The peak season operations strategy should be tailored to accommodate the higher-than-normal spikes in demand, meaning that back-end and front-end operations must run seamlessly. Retailers should spend time forecasting and planning ahead for supply shortages and expedited shipments and should work with logistics service providers that can help execute the plan. This is especially true for electronics retailers who will be relying on the delivery of many of their products from overseas during a time when ports are notoriously crowded and recent product hype has caused sky-high demand.

Pay It Forward

Adopting a reverse logistics strategy is another particularly useful method to differentiate a company from the competition and to better serve customers during the peak season. Retailers across all industries should take a page from the electronics industry for best practices in creating and running reverse logistics programs. For example, a Best Buy program has recycled 829 million pounds of electronic goods to date. Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, reverse logistics programs can help retailers reclaim and reinvest some of the value of the product that would have otherwise been lost to a landfill. Additionally, consumers receive the benefit of either trading in an old or damaged product for cash or store credit that can be used to purchase a new item at that store.

In the electronics industry, reverse logistics practices are invaluable, since technology turns over at such a rapid pace. By the next major holiday, the brand-new tablet a consumer fought to purchase this year will be out of date. The same can be said for that pair of jeans everyone is vying for this year, or the toys on every child’s wish list. With a trade-in and recycling program, the retailer can salvage useful product parts for profit and the consumer is able to purchase next year’s new must-have. Therefore, it is key for retailers to find a partner with the ability to handle recycling, triaging, repairing and re-selling in one place when setting up a reverse logistics program.

For the 2014 holiday season, retailers should keep in mind that success takes more than ads and displays alone and the right supply chain program can be critical for competing in the marketplace.

Doug Pasquale is Executive Vice President, Logistics Division Ingram Micro North America Mobility

The Holiday Rush: What Businesses Owners Need to Know for Success Around the Holidays

Guest blog by Katie Kregel & Lisa Finholm

The holidays mean many things for many people: quality time with family and friends, last minute shopping runs, an overindulgence in baked goods and time to reflect on the new year ahead. For businesses, it means accommodating customers during the peak time of the year.

As businesses gear up for the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s important for us to remember customers will be spending more, which means they’ll need more and expect better customer service than usual. So, how do you prepare your employees mentally for the mad dash of consumers and the high demand of impeccable service while giving them the tools they need to deliver for your customers?

CorvisaCloud recently enlisted Zogby Analytics to find out what consumers are saying about customer service around the holidays. The results are a reminder of how we choose to deliver on the best service this holiday season:

1. What do customers think before they even begin spending their money during the holidays?

At 39 percent, consumers admit great holiday deals may get them in the door, but keeping them as a year-round customer begins and ends with customer service. Unfortunately, 45 percent of customers say customer service is worse during the holiday season.  That means, nearly half of customers go into the shopping season prepared to have a poor experience. This gives us every opportunity to change their minds, to ‘wow’ them with unexpected exceptional customer service. Every customer whose expectations are exceeded is an opportunity for a returning customer.

However, many businesses hire seasonal help around the holidays to meet that increased demand. These employees often undergo expedited training programs and minimal team member development.  Helping your employees understand your goals as a company will help them understand the value they add in assisting a customer from the moment they pick up the phone, enter your building or make that online purchase to the end of their transaction.

Today’s customer is able to research your company from anywhere and with anyone through business review websites, social media channels, and even texting all their best friends asking, “Who’s shopped here? Did you like it?” It’s important your employees understand that one bad experience can suddenly be on a digital newsfeed for thousands of people to read and that one positive experience will have 3 in 10 people sharing your name with others and another 29 percent saying they’ll shop in your store more often.

2. The holiday rush doesn’t end at Christmas. The “period of returns and winter sales” after Christmas is equally as important for customer service.

With 25 percent of customers stating they’re most likely to speak to customer service after the holidays, it’s essential to communicate to employees that the service they provide on other side of the purchase – the return – is just as important. Which means, customers are coming back to your business ready for assistance because something wasn’t quite satisfactory the first time around or simply not what they had on their wish list. Not only that, but this is a perfect time for additional selling to build upon the initial purchase.

When a customer returns a gift, it’s important employees understand that they should not only make the return process easy but to consider it a chance to upsell or encourage an exchange. How? The ability to streamline and organize the holiday chaos with better software, faster registers, great phone systems and communication tools that allow for quick turnarounds. It’s also important to ensure that those tools are easy for seasonal staff to learn and use with minimal training. Customers who are stuck waiting to trade in their unwanted or unsatisfactory item will only get more irritated with long hold times or slow moving, unknowledgeable staff – causing your business to miss out on future business opportunities.

Do your employees have the tools and knowledge they need to succeed?  It’s our job as business leaders to give our employees the tools they need to succeed and our customers the experience they want to come back during the holidays and year-round.

Katie Kregel & Lisa Finholm are with CorvisaCloud, which delivers contact center solutions that help businesses work smarter and make customers happier.

How Technology Can Help Keep You Sane This Holiday Season

Guest Blog By Nick Sprau

By now, if you live in the northern region of the United States, you can feel the fall chill in the air. The lower the temperature drops, the more we anticipate the holiday season approaching. For retailers, this time of year often means hitting sales goals, moving more stock and an additional Advil at the end of the work-week for busy floor associates. As customers come barreling through mall hallways and into storefront doors, retailers should be armed and ready with the proper technology that will help their business have a successful holiday sales season.

The right technology can take a headache inducing period and turn it into one of precision, allowing proper forecasting for staffing, purchasing and additional operational decision making. I often advise our retail customers to invest in technology that will help eliminate unnecessary paper and repetitive processes. With technology like paperless document management the AP/AR department can manage disputes faster and in a more precise manner that eliminates redundancy and errors. Besides enabling a greener environment, paperless document management also drives down cost associated with mailing invoices and purchasing corresponding shipping material. As is common during the holidays, increased transactions mean the flow of invoices, purchase orders and supporting documentation accelerates. Retailers who are armed to handle the increase in paperwork using automation technology can avoid unnecessary headaches.

The success of this prime selling season relies heavily on the effectiveness of the internal financial process and the accounting department’s ability to handle the increased number of purchase orders and invoices through the season. Moving to the cloud has an amazing ability to cut costs, increase productivity and boost revenues, all at the same time. Now is the time for retailers to get smart about how they can integrate cloud solutions into their existing ecosystem. However, companies will not realize the full impact of cloud-based ERP without taking the first step and going paperless.

Retailers should also look to equip associates (where appropriate) with mobile technology enabling secure access to imperative information. For example, Microsoft recently made it possible for salespeople to collaborate and review data by using Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online with their iPads, accessing the solution through the Safari browser. In a similar way, mobile solutions for other ERP capabilities are rapidly evolving. A study by the Mint Jutras research and consulting firm found that 27 percent of 300 businesses surveyed considered access to ERP data on mobile devices to be a “must‐have” service, and 38 percent believe it is “important.” Both of these figures represent a substantial increase from the previous year, in which the respective figures were 19 and 28 percent. Microsoft Dynamics users can take advantage of mobile ERP access today by connecting with MetaViewer through a browser, via either their smartphone or their iPad browser.

Mobility‐enabled ERP cuts across time zones and marketplaces to allow executives to take advantage of any opportunity at any time. Complete customer data and accounting information reside at the executive’s fingertips, and action can be taken in just minutes or seconds. During a time like this, it is imperative that decision makers have the tools they need to make smart choices that will delivers the proper customer services and product in a way that will save time, money and generate repeat business.

By implementing the technology platforms of paperless document management, cloud solutions and mobile ERP, retailers have the opportunity to cushion their stocking with a little extra money this holiday season. Have you implemented a technology service or platform that has streamlined services for your company? Share your stories with us on Twitter, @Metaviewer.

Nick Sprau is vice president of marketing with Metafile Information Systems Inc. Sprau is responsible for developing and implementing Metafile’s international marketing strategy to support the organization’s wide array of document imaging, workflow and management products and services.

Averting Showrooming’s Scrooge Effect

Guest Blog By Jeff Mariola

As the holiday season swings into gear so does competitive shopping with consumers scoping out merchandise in physical stores and then comparison shopping for the lowest price on their mobile device or computer, dubbed “showrooming” In an effort to combat or “embrace” this phenomenon some retailers led by Best Buy have implemented strategies including price matching to convert more shoppers into buyers.  Nobody is winning in this new game, manufacturers, retailers or the customer.

While I applaud retailers’ recognition that mobile technology is here to stay and for building a strategy they can use to their advantage, they are embracing short term solutions at best.  Just as Ebenezer Scrooge clung to his tight-fisted and greedy ways before he was enlightened, retailers and manufacturers need to embrace new methodologies and practices to combat “showrooming” as price matching may have a negative impact on everyone in the purchase stream, not just the retailer.

What’s the Scrooge-factor for retailers?  Sadly, retailers may find themselves matching prices with unauthorized, fly-by-night retailers that have a few units. While the rogue sellers have very little inventory they can impact price matching generated by algorithmic price dropping which results in margin pressure on everybody.    As bricks and mortars begin to match the price with online retailers they will have less money available to promote sales in their stores, maintain the requisite levels of employees needed for great customer service and will drop lines that are no longer profitable.

Ebenezer has a “bah, humbug” effect on manufacturers as retailers responding to the ever decreasing prices below minimum advertised prices or suggested retail prices often look to the manufacturers for financial compensation.  This compensation can come in the form of deductions from invoices being paid, demands for other discounts or other benefits to help subsidize the retailers’ marketing decision to match the lower online price.

The manufacturers’ sales force need to spend quality time promoting the benefits of their products to retailers to ensure the consumer becomes a satisfied purchaser.  The price gauging turns the sales team attention to why one retailer is getting a lower price than another. Ultimately, manufacturers may be forced to only work with retailers who sell their products for the value the manufacturer attaches to the product.

The money that the manufacturer is forced to spend on compensating retailers, monitoring price issues and dedicating resources to detail with the resulting customer service issues has to come from somewhere.  , It may result in the loss of jobs, reduced marketing and research and development budgets.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has negative consequences for the “showrooming”-addicted consumer as well.  While the consumer will have short term gains with reduced prices, the long term forecast will likely result in fewer choices, less innovation and reduced quality as the manufacturers seeks to eke out acceptable margins.

As an industry, we must continue to look for ways to promote products that protect reasonable margins for the retailer and manufacturer while still providing value for the consumer.  As the number of smart phones and comparison shopping tools increase, the impact of “showrooming” will continue to mushroom and everyone but a select few will lose.

Jeff Mariola is CEO of DigitalBrandWorks, www.digitalbrandworks.com, a digital consultancy which specializes in representing manufacturers in the digital marketplaces and ensuring proper overall representation of product’s pricing and content online.

Will Mom-and-Pop eCommerce Shops be Economically Affected if Online Sales Tax Passes?

Guest Blog by Jonathan Barsade

For more than a decade, federal and state lawmakers have attempted to craft legislation to regulate the collection of sales tax on Internet purchases. The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 passed the Senate in May with bipartisan support. House bills are now under consideration to achieve the same goals, which are to level the playing field between online retailers and brick-and-mortar competitors and more effectively enforce existing sales tax revenue collection laws.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte recently released a list of principles that should form the basis of the House bill, which is also expected to enjoy bipartisan support.

The question of taxation of online sales stems back to 1992, nearly a decade before eCommerce really began to take off, when the US Supreme Court ruled that retailers did not have to collect and remit local sales taxes unless they have a substantial connection (“nexus”), such as a physical presence, to the state where the customer lives. Where there was no “nexus” and sellers did not collect the tax, the Court ruling left it up to customers to pay the taxes owed in the form of “use” taxes, but most consumers don’t understand that obligation, and very few bother to comply. This created a loophole for the upcoming world of eCommerce.

One of the reasons cited for the 1992 Supreme Court decision was that merchants who sell out of state would potentially have to comply with the tax rules of over 10,000 tax jurisdictions to correctly collect and remit sales taxes. The Court noted that this would be an “undue” burden to place on businesses, that it would too complex and onerous to require a company to track and manage this massive body of rules.

Organizations that oppose the Marketplace Fairness Act and similar legislation cite this same argument today, particularly when it comes to small businesses: They claim that it is unreasonable to expect small retailers – mom-and-pop eCommerce shops – to comply with thousands of tax jurisdictions. They reference those very large online retailers with operations in multiple states that do invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff and systems to manage revenue collection and reporting.

But this argument is based on outdated technologies and ignores key developments that have occurred since the 1992 Supreme Court ruling. Technology is now much more advanced and accessible. Affordable software is available that can handle complex tax calculation and collection compliance tasks automatically, without slowing down transactions.

Opponents of closing the online sales tax collection loophole also complain that it’s unfair to expect mom-and-pop eCommerce operations to deploy and maintain the sophisticated software necessary to comply – that they lack the technical sophistication to manage this task. But this ignores the fact that online sales businesses – even small ones – are technologically savvy.

After all, they’re able to create an online store, attract customers on the web, complete online sales, collect complex shipping information, collect and process online credit card payments and much more. The sales tax solutions available for these retailers require only a fraction of the know-how needed to perform these tasks. And depending on their size and transaction volume, small online retail shops can get a plug-and-play solution for under $30 a month.

While closing the online sales tax loophole would represent an additional expense, for the vast majority of online operators, the cost would be nominal, and implementation and ongoing maintenance burdens would be practically non-existent. There are affordable options on the market now that automatically calculate, collect and file taxes. In fact, automating the process has been found to save merchants a significant amount by helping them avoid the fees and penalties they’d have to pay if they forget to file returns.

The Internet began to have a significant influence on culture in the mid-90s, but until 2001, its effect on commerce was much more limited: Websites served mainly as electronic marketing brochures until the infrastructure to support secure payments was developed. Since then, online retailers have enjoyed huge advantages over their brick-and-mortar counterparts – low overhead and access to a global market of potential buyers being the largest competitive edge.

Enacting legislation like the Marketplace Fairness Act won’t take those advantages away – online merchants will still enjoy lower overhead and greater market exposure. And thanks to sophisticated, easy-to-use and affordable compliance software, if legislation such as the Marketplace Fairness Act passes, complying with local tax collection rules won’t prove an undue burden for mom-and-pop eCommerce shops either.

Jonathan Barsade is Exactor CEO and former tax attorney at Akin Gump.

Keeping in Touch With Seasonal Employees

 

Guest Blog by Jonathan Erwin

As Businesses Experience Influx of Seasonal Hires, Enterprise Quality Communication Software Proves its Worth

With the holiday season creeping up quickly, retailers all over the country are beginning to ramp up for their busiest months of the year. To cope with the inevitable annual influx of business, many retailers will hire hundreds – sometimes even thousands – of seasonal employees.

The problem with hiring all these new employees is that communication can be tough. These companies already have standard procedures when it comes to communicating with their employees. Phasing in a new, often largely temporary workforce, takes a lot of effort and a lot of planning. Whether it’s a new procedure, that week’s sale items, or the most up to date marketing information, seasonal hires need the same access to communication from the top levels of management as any of the more full time employees. Communicating with these seasonal hires is tough largely due to the fact that they don’t have corporate email addresses.

When businesses swell from an administrative staff of 200 to more than 2000 employees at peak times, it can be a logistical nightmare to stay in touch with each new employee. That’s why software that is capable of seamlessly on / off boarding seasonal employees, training them, connecting them with their bosses and with each other – all in real time with no infrastructure to buy, deploy or manage – is absolutely invaluable. For example, a civic organization with a city as its customer base, or a fair and exposition center with hundreds of diverse events, vendors and event workers.

Enterprise communications networks for the non-desk workforce is additionally valuable because it creates workflow efficiencies while supporting remote locations. It improves the communication flow without requiring employers to default to personal email addresses or text messages; allowing field and frontline workers – often related to merchandising, promotion, pricing, delivery and distribution – to stay in the loop. When real time engagement with frontline workers is achieved, it naturally results in a more uniform, and thus better customer experience, which strengthens “same-store” sales revenue.

Another advantage is the increase in operational support efficiencies, accomplished by connecting location and field based management while bypassing busy email inboxes. This also strengthens coordination through the entire company and makes corporate compliance easier than ever – a very good thing over the holiday season especially, when so many new employees who may not be familiar with compliance standards are working and learning on the job.

The holiday season often requires an increase in overtime allotment. Good enterprise software designed around bringing non desk workers into the fold can reduce overtime while increasing service levels through improved team member engagement – with scheduling, coaching, product roll out and promotion, general announcements and coordination.

Another advantage of this type of software during holiday season is that the human resources department now has a private and secure voice channeled directly to team members. This reduces U.S. Mail expenses, strengthens ERISA compliance, and allows for the delivery of critical information related to payroll and benefits.

For all these reasons and more, it is crucial that companies expecting an influx of seasonal employees are prepared with the correct enterprise quality communication software designed to make the transition to the busy season as drama free as possible.

Jonathan Erwin is CEO of the mobile enterprise network Red e App. Jonathan has 20+ years in sales, marketing, and executive roles. As CEO and founder of Red e App, he is focused on helping customers engage employees more effectively through mobile communication.

Using All Your Senses in a Multi-Channel World

Guest Blog By Dani Wanderer

Our five senses are some of our most powerful tools. We use each of them daily. They enable us to process and enjoy the world around us. But our senses don’t exist as separate abilities, nor do they exist in a vacuum.

For example, when investigating an object, you consciously or subconsciously use all of your senses to understand it, right? The combination of sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste provides a better understanding than a singular sense is able to do. This is similar to the approach that some of the most successful modern retailers have adopted in order to improve their business – using all the “senses” they have at their disposal.

Today, organizations of all sizes are actively leveraging multi-channel feedback—much like multi-sensory investigation—to understand their customers better, and to increase competitive advantage, internal efficiencies and profitability. This trend is growing as organizations compete to provide exceptional customer experiences, because unless customers’ needs and wants are well satisfied, customers can and will blast their dissatisfaction on social media and other outlets. This new reality comes with real bottom line impacts.

Retailers are particularly susceptible to this industry shift, and must learn that their businesses, much like their own bodies, must use all of their available senses in order to survive and grow.

One of the biggest ways that companies can improve business is to establish proper platforms and pipelines to accurately collect and analyze all customer feedback. We only have to look at the Neiman Marcus Group’s recently announced plan to invest $100 million to increase its multi-channel presence to see just how important this subject has become to major retailers.

It’s now a necessity for retailers to use all means necessary to better understand their customers and to respond appropriately to their needs and wants.

Establish Customer Listening Posts

It’s absolutely essential to gather Voice of the Customer (VoC) data and to use the insights to implement customer-specific process improvements, but you must be proactive in your efforts to understand your customers.

To do this, gather feedback by establishing “listening posts” (think: senses) including social media, customer councils, employee feedback and surveys to both internal and external customers. By regularly gathering and analyzing VoC and voice of the employee (VoE) insight, your organization will have a bird’s eye view of customer needs so your organization can act accordingly. Remember, employees who regularly connect directly with customers can provide an abundance of insight that your organization may not otherwise have access to, providing you with a broader perspective into just how satisfied your customers are.

Real World Lessons

The international, multi-channel retailer Lands’ End was faced with the issue of having a limited research team to support its growing organization. By evolving its feedback platform from dated phone surveys to a more modern online survey model, Land’s End was able to extend its reach and business without having to invest in additional research staff. Because of this decision, the company saw a 30% increase in its volume of market research and a reduced overall research time by 25%. Lands End is now able to conduct seasonal product testing for 300+ products to aid in buying decisions.

As a result of its research and testing, the retailer developed a new shipping strategy and the launch of an innovative and highly successful new line of women’s swimwear.

Another example is the clothing company Bonobos, which listens to their customers and actually revamps product lines as a result of the feedback it receives. By capturing the voice of its’ customers from a multitude of channels, Bonobos’ designers and merchandisers have the insight they need to improve and adapt their offerings. In fact, after receiving customer feedback, the company recently designed a slimmer-cut dress shirt and amended its sweater and denim offerings. Not to mention the fact that half the stock of the newly designed dress shirt sold out in less than a week!

Consolidate Multi-Channel Feedback on a Single Platform

Imagine that your body has five brains and that each of your senses is linked to a different brain. And that none of these brains can communicate with each other. With that strange picture in mind, how is that much different than an organization that collects data from multiple channels and stores it in disparate, non-integrated systems?

When gathering data from multiple channels, often you can end up with siloed data within and across departments, all in varying formats because each department is likely using a different solution to gather the data. Feedback from one customer could be in 10 or more different places. Unless this information can be readily accessed, shared, and assessed by anyone in the organization who needs it, it loses much of its strategic punch.

The only way to effectively manage the data gathered from multiple channels is to consolidate on a single, organization-wide survey platform (think: one brain). With one platform in use, data is more transparent and actionable, and will provide greater insight into what customers actually want.

We’re approaching an era where no decision will be made without data, a day when organizations can anticipate and instantly respond to the needs and wants of their customers. And in today’s multi-channel, data-driven world, we’re continuing to see a push toward a single survey platform that spans the enterprise, integrates with all existing systems and becomes the engine that drives decisions throughout the entire company.

Dani Wanderer is head of marketing for Qualtrics

Seven Strange and Obscure State Tax Laws

Guest Blog by Mark Faggiano

As every business owner knows, it’s important to comply with local, state and federal tax laws – you’ll soon be in a lot of trouble if you don’t. But compliance can be a challenge. It’s not always easy to figure out what taxes are owed on which items, even if you sell goods in one state only, and if you operate in multiple states, that can complicate matters exponentially.

Tax rates and taxable item categories can vary considerably from state to state. Cities can also impose their own taxes on certain items and services. And sometimes, tax regulations just don’t make much sense, which leads to confusion for business owners who are struggling to accurately collect taxes from customers. Here are seven examples of bizarre taxes found in the states:

1. New York takes a bite out of bagels – but only if they’re sliced or eaten in a bagel shop. In New York, bagels that are sold sliced or eaten at the bagel store (whole or sliced) are taxable. An unsliced bagel that is eaten off premises isn’t taxable, but a sliced bagel is always taxed.

2. Connecticut taxes diapers – but only for children. In Connecticut, adult diapers are not subject to state taxes. But consumers who purchase diapers for their children do have to pay state sales taxes on diapers.

3. New Mexico gives centenarians a free ride. If you live to be 100 and you’re a New Mexico resident, you’re done paying state taxes – people who are age 100 and up do not have to pay state taxes. But that’s only if no one else claims you as a dependent.

4. Florida has a sales tax holiday – but it’s very confusing. Swimsuits are tax-free, but masks and snorkels are not. Sports attire is tax-free, but not helmets. Printer paper is taxable, but not construction paper. The state maintains a list of seemingly random items to guide merchants.

5. Wisconsin has a baffling take on the taxation of ice cream cakes. Due to tax law revisions, ice cream cakes may be taxed, depending on whether they are categorized as a “prepared food.” If ice cream and other food items are mixed and sold as a single item, they’re generally taxable.

6. Iowa taxes candy…unless it contains flour. Many states tax candy, presumably to encourage healthier eating habits as well as to generate revenue. But in Iowa, only flour-free candy is taxed. Milky Ways and Kit Kat bars are tax-exempt.

7. California taxes fruit from vending machines. If you buy a banana from the produce section of a California grocery store, there’s no tax on the fruit. However, a banana dispensed from a vending machine is a taxable item.

These are just a few examples of the many odd taxes and difficult-to-track item categories that business owners have to contend with when selling goods and services and attempting to remain in compliance. The patchwork regulations often result from legislative efforts to encourage or discourage certain behaviors or reward constituent groups (such as wheat farmers), and even if the goals are laudable, the resulting complexity can significantly hamper business operations.

But even if you eliminate the additional layer of complexity imposed by obscure tax laws, complying with ordinary collection regulations is already challenge enough for many business owners. This is especially true for those who sell across multiple tax jurisdictions via ecommerce platforms like eBay, Amazon.com or Etsy – or across a number of channels.

Business owners must find a way to manage and track data and break sales tax information down by states, counties and cities. For multi-channel sellers, efficiency and compliance require the ability to break out sales by channel and buyer location to ensure accurate tax collection, filing and channel management. In addition, states mandate that businesses maintain transaction histories for a number of years and may conduct an audit to ensure compliance.

Luckily for brick-and-mortar business owners and ecommerce merchants alike, there are technology tools available to streamline tax information management, storage and filing. With the right solution, retailers and e-tailers can make sure they stay in compliance with regular sales tax collection and reporting – as well as the odd taxes levied from state to state.

Mark Faggiano is the Founder and CEO of TaxJar – a service built to make post-transaction sales tax compliance easier for multi-channel ecommerce sellers. Mark’s passion is solving complex problems for small businesses. He previously co-founded and led FileLater to become the web’s leading tax extension service for both businesses and individual taxpayers before being acquired in 2010

Retailers Need to Get Connected for Revenue

Guest Blog by Jon Stine

It’s no secret that shoppers increasingly prefer the experience provided by e-commerce retailers. Brick and mortar brands have long excused that preference with references to lower prices and at-home convenience – but the truth of the matter is that best of the e-commerce brands win with data.

Take Amazon, for example. Consider their best-in-class customer experience, complete with personalized recommendations, suggestions of “go-withs” and accessories, ideas from others, and shipping addresses on file.

All working together to positively influence shopper decisions, to create bigger baskets and an emphatic “yes.”   And all created through data acquisition, analysis, and action.

In today’s internet-of-everything world, it’s not just online retailers who can create new value from the realm of data. Brick and mortar retailers can take a page from their playbook and leverage the people, processes and things that increasingly connected to the Internet to better predict when and where consumers will want to buy, and ultimately capture more revenues.

For that last few years, Cisco has been watching the impact of the Internet transform the retail industry. Our research started with the observation that retailers just aren’t taking advantage of data already available. Here is how retailers can better connect and capture the data available to them to increase profits this holiday season and beyond:

1. Connect and Build Customer Trust: When customers freely share data with trusted brands, (via social media, mobile [location-aware] or at the website), retailers have the opportunity to upsell and match offers online and in the physical store – leading to greater revenue.

Example: Amazon shoppers don’t mind the retailer knowing where they live, their browsing history and what their favorite brands are because in exchange for this information, Amazon gives them personalized recommendations tailored directly to their needs.

2. Maximize Your Manpower Through Connectivity: Employees can access and share best practices, operational alerts and develop smart training and development tools from their mobile device, while giving managers new insights into efficient ways to allocate sales personnel to drive profits. In addition, employees can provide real-time feedback on product and promotion performance – leading to improved advertising, marketing and additional revenue.

Example: Imagine if your top sales person could be in all your locations everyday, providing expert advice to shoppers and suggesting additional items to go with their purchases. A workforce connected video collaboration can do just that. And by recording top performers, other employees can watch and learn how to do a successful upsell from anywhere, at anytime.

3. Drive Higher Levels of Stock Availability: In-stock performance is one of the four most critical indicators to overall store performance. With automated intelligent stock management and shelf sensing, stores can keep track of merchandise, order stock when inventory falls below a certain level and service customers – all without employee intervention.

Example: Numerous apparel retailers are now rolling out item-level RFID on their private label assortments. Numerous studies have documented the value of that investment in reducing stock-outs in basics, and lifting turn and revenues. Such an investment also pays dividends in omni-channel management, as it allows retailers to create an “endless aisle” of linked and available inventory.

4. Tap Into Dark Assess In-Store: By connecting dark assets like video surveillance cameras, social media, customer’s Wi-Fi signals to online analytics, retailers can predict new trends and empower employees to respond to drive profitability.

Example: A leading retailer is using sensors in the parking lot to help employees anticipate store traffic, and more efficiently staff checkout lanes.

5. Make Your Supply Chain Transparent: Retailers need to have full visibility across the supply chain process by connecting every component. This includes tracking materials from the source, to the factory, to the delivery truck and ultimately to the store or warehouse. In this model, retailers can anticipate exceptions to business rules and respond before anyone else.

Example: If a retailer has complete visibility in to the supply chain, they will know exactly when a shipment falls behind, and why. They don’t need to wait for a shipment to be late to know there is a problem. This allows them to reallocate inventories and promotional schedules as necessary.

These tips are just the beginning. There are countless ways to take advantage of the data available to your organization. Data comes from everywhere and there are trends starting right in front of you, all you need to do is be on the look out to realize the potential revenue they can provide.

Jon Stine is director, retail industry for Cisco Consulting Services

Reinvigorating Retail Loyalty Engagement through Partner Programs

Guest Blog by Rob MacLean

Just because something is good doesn’t mean it can’t be better.

According to COLLOQUY’s 2013 Loyalty Census, retail loyalty program membership has enjoyed some of the fastest growth compared to other industries. Department stores saw their loyalty program membership surge 70% in the last two years while drug store loyalty grew 45%. Overall, retail loyalty program membership has grown 24% since 2010 and 116% since 2006.

But with engagement levels down 4.3% as a loyalty program average, membership growth is only part of the whole loyalty and customer story.

Today’s retail loyalty programs (despite high membership) struggle with three main challenges:

#1.  Rewards fragmentation: the types of rewards offered to customers in different retail loyalty programs are inconsistent. Such inconsistency undermines consumers’ rewards expectations across the entire retail space. Financial institutions and airlines, by contrast, have designed loyalty program constructs where the rules and rewards between programs are similar.

#2.  Lack of merchant-operated scalability: many merchant-operated programs are too small to become retail profit drivers. Instead they become cost centers, forcing many loyalty programs to shut down before they hit their engagement stride.

#3. Drowning in the data deluge: competition among retailers combined with changes in consumer behaviors has left many businesses scrambling to find new ways to capture customer behavioral insights. And in the rush to acquire this data, retailers have failed to align business goals with the data they need to maximize customer engagement. As a result, many loyalty programs lack focus and, once again, don’t offer customers what they want.

Hubbub Over Loyalty Hubs

Considering how interrelated the above challenges are, solving them requires an overarching and integrated approach. Rather than building individualized small-scale loyalty schemes, coalition loyalty programs that bring together multiple retail loyalty programs in one location make the most sense. Either that, or retailers must do additional homework to discover which third party program providers are offering their competitors amazing loyalty rewards and collecting data that will help tailor future rewards to specific demographics.

In other words, there’s no reason to re-invent the wheel. If successful rewards programs are already engaging customers, why risk further fragmentation?

But after a coalition program or loyalty hub has brought customer reward schemes together, what then? How does brand’s loyalty strategy evolve? Loyalty marketplaces must be more than grand assemblies. They must allow customers to track, trade, exchange and redeem their points/miles (depending on the specific loyalty currency) in a seamless and intuitive manner. Making these transactions easy to perform and execute is the key difference between coalition programs and true marketplaces that continue to be developed.

The latter drives engagement to new heights as consumers are incentivized to perform more loyalty transactions, improving the quality of the reward while reducing redemption time. High activity levels also help merchants discover new customers and the shared customer data between members benefits all parties.

Mobile Wallets and Loyalty – A Partnership with Potential

Of course, a discussion of loyalty marketplaces isn’t complete without addressing mobile wallets and its customer engagement potential. Despite sluggish adoption, this environment will prove the perfect incubators of such digital transactions. With smartphone shipments now outpacing feature phones, (225 million smartphones were shipped in the US second quarter of 2013) it’s clear consumers crave these devices’ functionality and ability to augment in-store and off-site shopping experiences.

Convergence, a marketing term favorite, isn’t a buzz word after all. Uniting great loyalty programs with easy-to-use virtual currencies all within a single smartphone is nothing short of revolutionary. The union of loyalty programs and virtual currency might be the perfect marriage of convenience and the ultimate loyalty strategy.

Even if mobile wallet adoption has yet to hit critical mass and Point of Sale technology uniformity is far from achieved, smart retailers will be the ones envisioning a future where the phrase “paper or plastic” sounds entirely antiquated.

High loyalty program membership is great. But legions of disengaged members are like dead weight on a loyalty program’s enduring success. Joining a coalition loyalty program isn’t cost-free, or without integration challenges. But there’s no doubt that’s where the future of retail loyalty engagement lies.

So consider this article a conversation starter about what’s needed to reinvigorate retail loyalty programs and the steps needed to transform an already good retail loyalty program into one of the best.

Rob MacLean is CEO, Points