Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Smart Phones Get a Little Smarter-and Payments Get a Little More Mobile

VeriFone, the company that supplies most of the SNAP program EBT-only terminals, will begin next week shipping its latest solution aimed at the growing area of mobile commerce. Called "PAYware Mobile," the solution includes a software application (app) for the wildly popular iPhone and a card reader that slips over the iPhone. The company says the hardware and software are free for merchants who sign up for a PAYware Mobile secure gateway service agreement.

PAYware Mobile essentially turns any iPhone into a card acceptance and signature capture device. It can handle credit and signature debit transactions. The key selling point for PAYware Mobile is that it helps small businesses avoid the "card not present" processing fees for accepting credit cards.

PAYware Mobile is aimed at merchants and sellers who could not previously justify the cost of accepting electronic payments like home repairmen, small cafes or restaurants, door-to-door sellers, route sellers or home "party" sales.

VeriFone's distribution scheme for PAYware Mobile is also interesting. In addition to normal channels like bank acquirers and ISOs, it will be available direct from VeriFone. This is similar to the distribution scheme announced yesterday for the new Google smart phone Nexus One, which will be available initially through mobile carrier T-Mobile, as well as direct through Google.

VeriFone sees a market for PAYware Mobile of "millions of small businesses worldwide," according to a company release.

Should PAYware Mobile eventually be configured to handle PIN debit transactions it might make a natural fit for the burgeoning farmers market EBT program across the U.S.

PAYware Mobile begins shipping January 15, according to a product release. For more information log on to the PAYware mobile site.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There Is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

For the 15th year in a row, San Francisco-based Fineman PR has released its list of the 10 biggest public relations blunders of the year. If to err is human, then these are super-human screw-ups. Just take a look:
  1. The Obama White House cleared Air Force One to fly over Manhattan with an F-16 in pursuit last April. The purpose: A panoramic shot of Air Force 1 over the Statue of Liberty. The goal: Make President Obama look, well, presidential. But to New Yorkers still living with the horrible memories of 9-11 it was a cold, callous political stunt not worthy of any president, let alone one who had won the city's vote handily in 2008. 
  2. A school district in Delaware suspended a six-year-old for bringing a camping utensil into school. The little boy had been so excited at joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to bring his new toy in to eat lunch. The academic mandarins who run the Christina School District "reasoned" that the tool could be used as a weapon in the hands of a dangerous six-year old excited about scouting.  No amount of book learning can substitute for common sense.
  3. Goldman Sachs, the venerable poster child for fat-cat investment bankers, decided it needed some pro-active PR to counter the impression that the $17 billion in bonuses it gave out last year showed it hadn't learned a thing from the global anti-banking anger that followed the onset of the current recession. CEO Lloyd Blankfein bragged to the UK Sunday Times that Goldman was "doing God's work," and pointed to the small business loans it was making.  God had a pretty good year this year. Wonder what His bonus will be?
  4.  United Airlines' post-9-11 slogan was "it's time to fly" again. Apparently not if you're traveling with a musical instrument. Last year Canadian David Carroll sat aboard a UA flight and watched down below as the baggage throwers tossed his $3,500 guitar around like it was a javelin. Carroll sent the airline a $1,200 bill for the damage to the guitar. United ignored Carroll's demands, providing a textbook case for why old line industries just don't get this social media thing. Musician Carroll recorded a music video about the incident and posted it to You Tube. Within a week the video had amassed three million hits, and United was quickly back in touch with Carroll about a settlement after nine months of stonewalling.
  5. Two employees of a Domino's Pizza shop were videotaped doing disgusting things to the pizzas--things usually done in private. They then posted the video to You Tube. The company dithered for two days trying to come up with a response. Faster than you can say pepperoni the video had one million views. Finally the company tried to contain the crisis using its own social media campaign. Let's hope their deliveries are faster than their crisis management responses.
  6. Let's take made-for-TV award shows with a grain of salt. Still, when singer Kanye West grabbed the mic out of the hands of teenager Taylor Swift, MTV Music Award winner for Best Female Video, and told the world that his friend Beyonce should have won the award it was a bit much. Even in an industry built on overindulgence and self-promotion West's act was not a career builder. He later made a public apology on the Tonight Show.
  7. Last May Kentucky Fried Chicken learned that it's not who's coming to dinner, but how many are coming to dinner that matters. In a campaign destined for the "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time" Hall of Fame, KFC did a coupon tie-in to The Oprah Winfrey Show as a way to introduce its new grilled chicken product. The rationale:  Oprah could deliver a lot of potential customers in the KFC key demographic. The problem: Oprah delivered a lot of customers in the KFC key demographic. Lots of them. In fact, millions. They downloaded the coupon for a free KFC grilled chicken meal and then descended on KFC restaurants like a free kegger at a college fraternity. The result: More mouths than meals, and a lot of angry and disappointed customers turned away. Somewhere the Colonel is plotting his comeback. 
  8. Department store Target held an online promotion last fall for an "illegal alien" costume, complete with an extraterrestrial mask, orange prison jump suit labeled "ILLEGAL ALIEN," and a large "green card." (No word on why you'd be illegal if you had a green card.)  Target blamed the incident on a data entry error that caused the offending costume to be ordered. Regardless,  advocacy groups descended on Target faster than a bunch of grandmas on Black Friday. In a world gone made with political correctness and over-sensitivity Target somehow launched a promotion that even the most ardent anti-immigration partisan would find offensive. Bad Target.
  9. The Los Angeles Times reported that a Wells Fargo bank executive had foreclosed on a $12 million Malibu beachfront estate and then used it for throwing swank parties. Allegedly the foreclosed owner had lost his wealth in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. It's worth mentioning that at the time Wells had received  $25 billion from U.S. taxpayers to stay in business. A lot of these taxpayers had themselves been foreclosed on by banks like, well, Wells Fargo. Any wonder why nobody likes bankers?
  10. A Chicago landlord, Horizon Group Management, had a dispute with a renter last spring. The renter tweeted something nasty about her living conditions in an apartment managed by the landlord. Landlord Horizon sued the renter, claiming that the Twitter message was broadcast all over the world, potentially damaging its reputation. The renter at the time had a grand total of 22 Twitter followers. She would have reached more people shouting her message at a crowded El stop. Unfortunately for Horizon the story about the suit was picked up by major traditional media like  the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Associated Press. The newspaper business is fading like cheap wallpaper, but they still have a hell of a lot more than 22 readers. The only worse move for Horizon would have been to hire the coyote to go after the roadrunner. The PR lesson here: In David vs. Goliath stories, nobody ever roots for Goliath. 
There you have it, thanks to Fineman PR.   Sometimes no publicity is better than bad publicity!

Just thought you might like to know!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

USDA Official Will Visit Kentucky's New WIC EBT Project; Will Observe System Operations in WIC Clinics and Food Stores

This Friday, December 18, Dr. Janey Thornton , deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service will perform site visits in Kentucky to observe the State's new WIC Electronic Benefits Transfer system in action.

The system, called WIC Direct , has been in pilot operations for two months. WIC Direct delivers supplemental food benefits to eligible women, infants and children. It replaces use of paper checks with a magnetic-stripe card similar to a debit card. Currently only a handful of states are using EBT card technology to delivery WIC benefits. Kentucky is the latest.

A native Kentuckian, Dr. Thornton will be visiting a Walmart as well as a Houchens store as well as several WIC clinics where eligible consumers enroll to participate in the WIC program.

WIC Direct was developed by CDP ,  a company with a 25-year history of developing custom health system solutions for public and private sector customers. The WIC Direct system improves the check out process for WIC customers, allows them to check their balances, and reduces paper work for program staff.

The system, which was in development for two years, was designed to provide an affordable online solution to the problem of authorizing the sale of WIC food products, according to Stan Cochran, CDP chief executive. Because of the controls and regulations on the sale of WIC foods, the WIC retail transaction can be complex. Another goal of the project is to engage retailers in integrating the WIC EBT transaction into their own electronic cash register systems.

When fully deployed, the system will serve nearly 130,000 Kentuckians as well as over 1,100 retailers across the state.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Electronic Funds Transfer Association Names Michigan's Women, Infants and Children EBT program "Project of the Year"

The State of Michigan’s program for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits has been recognized as the “Project of the Year” by the Electronic Funds Transfer Association and its eGovernment Payments Council.

The Michigan WIC EBT project which enables participating families to make WIC purchases through electronic benefit transfer (EBT) using the Michigan “Bridge Card," is supported by Affiliated Computer Services.  The card offers improved flexibility and security over traditional WIC paper coupons. The program is the first of its kind to provide statewide real-time online access that automatically validates WIC-approved items, reducing the chances of error at the checkout lane.

Nearly 2,000 vendors across the state are equipped to accept the card. An ACS customer care center located in Michigan provides 24/7 support in three languages (English, Spanish and Arabic) for program participants as well as vendors.

The program was named Project of the Year” by the EFTA and its eGPC for its groundbreaking status as the first statewide online WIC EBT project in the nation, said Kurt Helwig, president and CEO of the EFTA. Michigan’s WIC program director Stan Bein accepted the award at the organization’s convention in New Orleans.

“ACS is honored to be part of a program that has become a national model of how WIC benefits are distributed and administered,” said Joseph Doherty, executive vice president and group president of ACS Government Solutions. “We are eager to show other states how this solution benefits both government and program recipients.”

ACS also provides Michigan with EBT services for the state’s SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps), providing convenient access to benefits to more than 700,000 residents.

The Electronic Funds Transfer Association is the nation's leading inter-industry professional group promoting the adoption of electronic payment systems like EBT. The eGovernment Payments Council is a group within EFTA that provides thought leadership on the business and policy issues involved in the development and operation of EBT systems.

Kurt Helwig, president and CEO of the Electronic Funds Transfer Association and its eGovernment Payments Council present's Michigan's Stan Bien with the eGPC's 2009 Project of the Year award at its annual conference, EBT The Next Generation, in New Orleans.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Wal Mart and WIC EBT

Former Next Generation Speaker Jennifer Smith from Walmart testified recently before the Senate Agriculture committee on WIC and EBT. Never shy about the company's position on EBT, Ms. Smith's comments included a request that Congress mandate development of one set of operating standards for WIC EBT. She also suggested that lawmakers consider making the WIC program interoperable in the same way the SNAP program is. This would be not only a technical change along the order that the program has never seen, but it would be a cultural change for the many agencies that administer WIC. And it would come on the footsteps of the new WIC food package and other administrative changes that right now have their hands full.

Perhaps the "ask" Walmart made at the hearing was for the Congress to mandate adoption of WIC EBT. This would force Congress to supply the funding that would finally end the use of checks and vouchers in the system.

There is no doubt that operating standards are necessary to propel WIC EBT into its next generation, much in the same way that the April 2002 food stamp operating regulations transformed EBT from experimental science to the sole method of benefit distribution (although it took 12 years) in the U.S.

But going to Congress with such a concept may fall into the "be careful what you ask for" category. While Congress may grant Walmart's wish, it may do so in a way that ties the hands of the executive agency (USDA) and saddles the EBT community with a set of regulations that are so proscriptive as to make development more difficult than it has to be. For an example, Google "digital TV converter," and see how a constraining law made a relatively simple task more difficult.

And mandating conversion to WIC EBT may be nirvana for EBT processors and consultants. But is it realistic given the lack of technology resources of most WIC agencies? There certainly are a good number of states that can take on that challenge in 2010 and 2011; however, there are many more that are underfunded, overworked, and would be, frankly, overwhelmed if told to just go out and "git 'er done."

The EBT community, the states, the federal agency and the private sector, have all worked on these issues methodically for many years before Walmart became a player in WIC EBT. It has been slow, frustrating work. But imposing mandates on unprepared states may not be the best way to accelerate the process. The EBT community could find itself no longer driving the train, but being dragged behind it.