Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SKU Rationalization

Retailers in their quest to automate operations over the years have developed a number of ways to keep track of products ordered, inventoried, sold and re-ordered. Stock-keeping units, or SKUs, product look ups, or PLUs, for produce, and universal product codes, or UPCs, for grocery items are just part of this alphabet soup.

For practitioners of WIC EBT, UPCs are important because they form the UPC databases that make WIC EBT possible.

But now comes word that retailers are re-looking at the number of items they carry in a store in an effort to "skinny up" their SKUs.

Walmart was the first retailer to act on this, with its "Win/Place/Show" strategy, aimed at reducing the number of items it carries by 18%.

Now smaller format stores are getting into the act, employing "SKU rationalization" to cut down the number of product lines they carry. Fewer products means lower costs.

According to one report, the number of food product lines that could be reduced across the industry does not yet include anything that would affect the WIC program.

But those of us involved in WIC EBT would be wise to monitor this retail trend, less WIC consumers show up at the store one day and not find their favorite brand of cereal or prescribed type of milk.

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For more information on issues involving retailers and WIC register today for EBT The Next Generation, Nov. 8-10 in New Orleans. This is the only national conference devoted entirely to EBT issues with several sessions that deal with retailers and WIC. For more information or to register, click here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Intrepid Nine

Congratulations are in order for nine states recently awarded WIC EBT Planning grants. They are:

  • Alabama

  • Colorado

  • Delaware

  • District of Columbia

  • Illinois

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Oregon

  • Pennsylvania

These nine states will soon embark on an exciting journey-determining the feasibility of WIC EBT for their individual states, determining what type of technology works best for them, gathering information from WIC retail vendors, local WIC agencies and others on the business processes to be incorporated in the new system, and working with the Food and Nutrition Service to develop RFPs for planning and, hopefully, for implementation.

As they walk down this road, they are walking in the footsteps of many other WIC agencies who have gone before them. States like Wyoming, one of the earliest converts to the WIC EBT concept and a proud participant in the groundbreaking Health Passport concept.

And Michigan, the state that incubated the first successful statewide online WIC EBT project. And Texas, which proved the viability of its "commercial" cost model in rolling out an offline EBT project across that vast state.

These nine states, along with the handful that are currently operating WIC EBT statewide, and the few that are in planning now, will comprise about 20% of the WIC states, territories and tribal organizations. Now WIC EBT is starting to look like something.

2010 may be the year that WIC EBT passes from an interesting concept to a battle-tested delivery system capable of nationwide deployment.

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For more information on the current state of WIC EBT, including the search for national standards, interfacing with legacy systems, and evaluating online and offline technology, make plans to attend EBT The Next Generation Nov. 8-10 in New Orleans. For more information, or to register for the conference, click here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Farmers Markets

A group called Farmers Markets Today just released its survey of farmers market operations in the U.S. The survey covered over 400 respondents, about half of them farmers, currently involved in farmers markets. The results might surprise you.

According to the survey:

  • Over half of the farmers (52.9%) sell at more than one market each week
  • Most farmers are experienced marketers--57% of those responding to the survey said they have been selling for a decade or more
  • Of the markets surveyed 82% have been in business for more than 3 years, with 37% operating for more than a decade

  • 9% of the markets are supported in some way by a state agency

  • Farmers markets are a local affair: 46% of them serve 500 or fewer customers
Two statistics really jump out: the average revenue per farmer per market day, and the percentage of a farmer's total revenue that comes from farmers markets.

Nearly 30 percent of farmers say they make between $150 and $300 at each farmers market. About 14% say they make over $600 per day.

And nearly 20% of respondents say that farmers markets account for over 90% of their total revenue.

There is no doubt that trends like nutrition education and outreach are making farmers markets more and more popular in sourcing supplies for the family table. And because of this farmers markets are becoming more and more important in EBT.

Image courtesy of the Iowa Department of Human Services

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EBT The Next Generation offers a special bonus session on Farmers Markets, Monday October 9 at 5:15 p.m. To register for the conference, or for more information click here.
To see the results of the
Farmers Markets Today survey, click here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Changing Face of SNAP

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday announced that six state agencies have been awarded grants to increase participation in the SNAP program. The lucky six are:

Congratulations to the agencies. They will be using to money to increase education and outreach about the program to various at-risk populations. The announcement demonstrates how much the SNAP program has changed in 20 years. We've seen it move from paper coupons to plastic cards. From a queue up at the welfare office to a smooth in-lane process at the grocery store. From a "welfare" program to a supplemental nutrition program. From an afterthought to the tip of the spear in disaster recovery.

These changes reflect the changes in the country over the past two decades such as greater emphasis on targeted programs. They also reflect a re-shaping of thought on nutrition education, beginning with the new food pyramid, and including the new WIC food package and the increasingly important role that farmers markets play in nutrition.

But many of these changes would not have been possible without the role that technology has played. This includes disaster food plans that are effective in hours, not days, and the ability for states in disparate regions to "buddy up" when one is subject to a disaster. It includes faster and more robust point of sale equipment, and the ability to issue true multi-application payment cards.

These technologies are not administrative spending gone to waste. The provide a way for states to make positive changes in the lives of people in ever increasing ways.

Posted by Bob September 21, 2009

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For more information on how technology is helping change the face of SNAP, WIC and other programs, attend EBT The Next Generation-the only education and training conference devoted exclusively to EBT. For more information, click here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

How Do We Measure Success?

Members of the eGoverment Payments Council and the Electronic Funds Transfer Association have devoted a great deal of time over the last 18 months educating congressional and executive agency staff on the benefits of WIC EBT. Partly as a result of this effort, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included WIC technology funding.

In the private sector we know when we've been successful. We know what we've invested in a project. We know the income that we've netted from that project. So we can pretty easily determine the return on that investment.

But how do we measure success in public sector investment? In other words, with a significant investment in WIC technology, how with the federal government know if it has achieved a meaningful return on that investment?

Jeff Rowe, editor of Healthcare IT News, poses that same question about the similar investment in healthcare technology that ARRA is making. He says the answers may be in a recently released report by INPUT, a Virginia-based research firm. The report, which deals with the healthcare segment, may have some clues for us on measuring the effectiveness of the investment in WIC technology.

Accurate metrics demonstrate the true value of programs like WIC. Developing an assessment methodology that demonstrates positive ROI can also make it easier to to justify increased spending in the future.

At this year's NextGeneration conference, Roundtable 2 will provide a forum for the EBT community to discuss Current Topics in WIC EBT. The topic of measuring success in WIC EBT would certainly fit into that discussion.

posted by Bob September 18 8:36 a.m.

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EBT The Next Generation will be held November 8-10 at the Inter Continental Hotel in New Orleans. To register, click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buzz about the New WIC Food Package

A half-million women, infants and children in Florida will soon be seeing changes in their WIC food prescriptions. So reports WTVY in a story about the changes about to happen. The changes will help reinforce nutrition education messages, says the Bay County, Florida Department of Health.

Over in Oklahoma, the Muscogee Phoenix reports on the implementation of the new food package, set for October 1. Should have happened years ago, says one Oklahoma official.

The San Antonio Express-News calls it WIC's "own version of healthcare reform, in reporting on the new food package this past Sunday.

"Kudos to the USDA for designing health-boosting packages that leave little room for error," the Express-News reports. The article even details the bonus benefits for breastfeeding.

It's great to see WIC garnering well earned media attention. Especially for an effort that took so long and was labored over by so many. The proof of the success of the new package will be in the implementation by all WIC agencies. We wish them well.

Posted by Bob September 16, 2009 6:44 pm

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For more information on the implementation of the new food package, check out Breakout Session 7, "Case Study: Implementing the New WIC Food Package (Horror Stories vs. Success Stories), Tuesday, November 10, 10:15 at the EBT The NextGeneration Education and Training Conference in New Orleans. For more information, or to register, click here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


We often talk about the need for champions in EBT. In the early days one such champion was Pennsylvania state senator Mike O'Pake. When the original Reading EBT pilot was due to expire in 1986 Mike led the charge in in the state legislature to come up with state money to continue the project because it had been so well received in the community. Reading ran for another ten years until supplanted by the statewide EBT system.

Eric Gioia is another such champion. The New York City councilman from the borough of Queens sports an orange tie. Orange is the color of hunger awareness, he says. Councilman Gioia is a hunger awareness advocate. It was his issue even when his political advisors told him to not bother, that among political issues that could energize voters, hunger was a loser.

Gioia was a supporter of simplifying the food stamp application process. He also helped lead the charge to convince Costco to accept EBT at its warehouse stores.

Eric Gioia is running for Public Advocate in this fall's election. Win or lose he is the type of official that can champion many of the technology innovations that make the delivery of benefits and services easier, faster, safer and more convenient.

As we look to implement WIC EBT in more and more states, we need more champions like Eric Gioia.

Posted by Bob September 10 12:45 p.m.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What Retailers Expect Out of WIC EBT

One of the key stakeholder groups in EBT is food retailers. Food retailers have been involved in EBT planning since before the first pilot in Reading, when they acceded to the use of debit card technology for disbursing food stamps because the online authorization process relieved them of any liability for misissuance.

Ten years or so ago, retailers were engaged in efforts to define transaction message sets and UPC databases for WIC EBT. That work helped aggregate information from several disparate WIC EBT pilots, and start us down the path of a common framework for WIC EBT, very similar to what we have today for SNAP EBT.

Today the retail community is actively and positively involved in helping shape the business rules for WIC EBT. The Food Marketing Institute, the trade association representing supermarkets and other food industry companies, provides an enormous amount of information on SNAP and WIC EBT on its website. This information, publicly available, helps inform the discussion about EBT.

But the issue remains: What do retailers really expect from WIC EBT? In trying to answer that question (only a retailer can answer it for sure), I go back to a discussion I had more than 15 years ago with Jim Rogers, president and CEO of what is now the Food Industry Alliance of New York State.

Retailers are wary of the supermarket becoming "the dumping ground of society's ills," he said. If our playgrounds and parks are littered with broken bottles, pass a bottle bill and make the retailers collect all of the old sticky bottles. Little Johnny can't add two plus two? No problem. Pass a unit pricing law and make retailers change the way they price merchandise because the schools didn't do their job. Can't eat fish because of high mercury content? Pass a battery bill and place the burden of compliance on the retailer.

Jim's point was that retailers are the ones who end up doing the heavy lifting on programs like bottle bills, SNAP and WIC. And retailers want a legitimate say in how those programs operate--before the UPS guy drops off a bunch of terminals.

Any EBT program worth its salt involves retailers from end-to-end in the program. This goes beyond a cursory meeting as the project is getting ready to launch. It involves sitting down with retailers before the RFP goes out, seeking retail input during system design and taking retailer concerns into consideration for system operations. It might even involve having retailers help evaluate the retail management solutions in vendor EBT proposals. Programs that involve retailers from the beginning tend to have the fewest problems.

There are many stakeholder groups whose concerns must be addressed in an EBT project. They include, without limitation, consumers, retailers, federal staff, the state agency, and the EBT processor, its vendors and subcontractors. All should be involved in the development of the project. But the difference between retailers and their customers on one hand, and the rest of us, on the other, is best explained by the old "ham and eggs" theory. When it comes to making a plate of ham and eggs, there's no doubt that the chicken is involved. But it's the pig that's really committed.

So it is with EBT. We're all involved, but it's the retailer's store, his customer, and ultimately his livelihood that makes him really committed to the project.

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For a deeper discussion of what retailers expect out of WIC EBT catch "Retailer Expectations with WIC," Monday, 2:15-3:30 pm at EBT The Next Generation. This session features Jennifer Smith, senior manager for regulatory compliance for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

To register or for more information, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The proliferation of EBT in farmers markets across the country has been nothing short of amazing. Late last month a market in Newark, NJ became the latest location to be "EBT enabled."

For SNAP shoppers as well as Garden State farmers the North Ward Center market will be a blessing. Unfortunately WIC shoppers and those same farmers continue to be vexed by paper. For those of us in the EBT community, it is frustrating to watch that, knowing that the technology exists today to change that WIC shopping experience in to something faster, more convenient and more dignified.

All of the stakeholders involved in EBT are committed to making this happen. The private sector certainly has the technology and ability to develop the solutions. More and more states are becoming interested in making the transition from paper to plastic. The Food and Nutrition Service has been working on the infrastructure and operating principles that must underlie any technology solution. Food retailers favor EBT, and WIC EBT shoppers are effusive in their praise of the new system.

But there are numerous obstacles that remain before we see WIC EBT have the bandwidth that the Food Stamp program enjoyed within as little as 7 years after Reading. One of these obstacles is the legacy systems that many states use to operate their WIC programs. Many of these are old and out of date. States continue to transfer systems from one to another in hopes of modernizing their WIC MIS; however, many questions remain. Chief among these is should a state wait to bring up a new WIC EBT system until it installs a new WIC MIS, or can they bring up EBT on their existing system.

This is just one of the many WIC EBT challenges we'll tackle head-on at this year's conference. We're at the point where there is a growing body of experience out there. What we need now is to pull it together in some sort of best practices for state's looking to go EBT.

We'll try to get that started when we meeting in New Orleans in November.

Welcome to the EBT The Next Generation Blog

Welcome to the blog site for EBT The Next Generation, the only national conference devoted exclusively to the practice of EBT. Every year the EBT community gathers in one location for 3 days of education, training, and provocative thought, all aimed at improving the delivery of benefits and services through electronic payment technology.

We've started this blog as another way to communicate with our delegates--to show you what we've got planned this year and into the future, to hear what's on your mind, and to provide a "public square" for the honest and open exchange of information.

If you've never blogged, you may enjoy this. Blogging is a web-based chronologically of a person, event or thing. In this case, the subject is the EBT community's annual conference, EBT The Next Generation. Here you'll be able to read about updates on the conference, EBT news and information you may not already have access to, and other information that can be useful to you in your daily EBT position. The way it works is that we'll post information--short stories or articles--for you to read, and hopefully, comment on. We'll create on "online community" focused on EBT. This blog will be the public square where we'll gather.

So to further the practice of EBT, take a minute to sign up as a follower. It's easy, it's fast, and it makes you a participant in the blog. If you can access Google in your office you can access this blog. You can also sign up to receive email alerts when there is a new post.

When you're done signing up to follow NextGen, take a minute to email the link to someone else who could benefit from our electronic public square. The more people who follow the blog, post comments and agree or disagree with the contents, the better the quality will be.

We've come a long way since the beginning of EBT. We've got a long way to go. Together, we'll get there.

Welcome to the Next Generation.