Is It Better Not

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-07-12 Print this article Print

to Know? "> Theres also a customer perception issue at play. Some would argue that if a retailer sends a consumer an e-mail alerting them that a package of hamburger that they specifically purchased two days earlier was contaminated—and assuming it reaches the consumer beforeany family member has eaten the hamburger—that consumer might become the worlds most loyal lifetime customer of that retailer, praising them nonstop for saving their lives. But some cynical retailers also argue the opposite, that the consumer would immediately blame the retailer for having sold them a tainted product and that they would lose that customer forever. Lets call this the "Dont Kill the Messenger" argument, or perhaps the "Damned If You Do, Damned If You Dont" argument. Of course, we can get into the moral issue about whether a retailer has an obligation to use this technology for humanitarian purposes, if possible. This is what Maxwell Smart would have dubbed the "CRM should use its genius for good instead of profit" argument.
Perhaps the most important—but least voiced—issue is technological pragmatism. There is a serious question about whether a CRM-powered retailer could alert customers quickly enough even if it wanted to, especially where perishable products such as hamburger is concerned.
In the Kroger case, the customer had to jump through several hoops before the store finally agreed to check her cards records. They then quickly identified her purchases as having been on the recall list. But consultant and retail expert Gregory questioned how long it would have taken the retailer to have identified all of the customers who had purchased the recalled produce and then sent e-mails—or made phone calls—to them. The exact amount of time would depend on the software they used, how many upgrades they had implemented and how many customers had made the purchases, but she estimated that it easily could have taken weeks. Checking one customers records is quite different than checking all of the records for a particular purchase, she added. With this particular incident, it appears that the retailer didnt do itself any favors. It put out no signs and made no attempt—not even cosmetic ones—to alert customers to the danger, said the customers lawyer, Nick Styrant-Browne of Seattle law firm Hagens Berman. He argued that the retailer should have contacted customers as a "matter of human decency" and is suing the retailer for not having contacted them in an attempt to prevent the consumption, thereby causing emotional distress. Given all of the hardships associated with this case and the angst some retailers will have regarding it, there is an ironic note. The CRM feature that is potentially getting Kroger into trouble is the ability to quickly e-mail and call customers. And yet, few retailers today even use that marketing capability. This prompted analyst Gregory to question whether some retailers were pressured into purchasing full-blown CRM systems when all they would likely use would be a lower-cost market basket analysis package. If they want customer buying patterns—and have no need or desire to directly connect with those customers routinely—"they dont need to spend all of those millions of dollars to understand who they all are." Its a fair point. But its also important to note that CRM, when used properly, is an amazingly effective part of a full business intelligence system. Done properly, CRM will deliver a depth and sophistication of answers unlike anything that could be done without it. But those answers will not come cheap. This is not a package to try for awhile and see if it helps. This is a package that requires full company commitment, in terms of dollars, training, policies and buy-in from just about every impacted unit (which is pretty much all of them). Those kinds of direct, timely answers also come with obligations. If you want to say to a consumer that his dryer is 5 years old and heres what the new ones can do, or that another customers favorite brand of peanut butter is on sale, you better be prepared to tell them that the hamburger they bought last week might be poisoned. At the very least, try. Theres a classic quote from the Roman philosopher Cicero: "Inter Arma, Enim Silent Leges," which loosely translates to, "In time of war, the law falls silent." When it comes to modern-day CRM systems and retailers, perhaps an apt paraphrase might be, "In time of recall, marketers cannot fall silent." Check out eWEEK.coms Enterprise Applications Center at for the latest news, reviews and analysis about productivity and business solutions.

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Evan Schuman is the editor of's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at

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