This month's blizzard may have kept customers out of stores, but it didn't prevent retailing executives from hunkering down for an annual convention in New York last week to discuss ways to boost sales.
While the subject matter did not relate directly to banking, retailers did mull over the advent of cybershopping and technological advances in payment systems that will affect the retail industry and financial services alike.
But retailers at the National Retail Federation's conference were also grounded in the nitty-gritty of their daily routine. On the back end of processing transactions, the big news was last year's merger of First Data Corp. and First Financial Management Corp. -which led to the formation of CES/Nabanco, the nation's top merchant processor.
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company had prominent locations in the exhibit hall, and president Paul Garcia greeted admirers and answered a few questions about the rapidly consolidating merchant processing field.
"CES and Nabanco had been aggressive competitors," said Mr. Garcia in an interview. "To oversee them becoming one unit is a challenge but it's coming together. The trick is to get the best possible value from a consumer as well as a shareholder perspective."
CES/Nabanco was formed in December through the combination of First Data's Card Establishment Services Inc. and the National Bancard Corp.
Addressing concerns that competition would be lost in the wake of the merger, Mr. Garcia responded that "it's still a very competitive world. Merchants are not going to be paying more."
Mr. Garcia noted that privacy concerns would remain a top issue, allowing that the industry must be "very cautious" in sharing information.
"Many consumers are resistant to sharing information (through using their credit cards), and we are cognizant of that," said Mr. Garcia. "But if you offer the consumer something of value, they will freely allow this information to be shared."
"We have to work in an ethical, intelligent manner," added John Sawicki, vice president of strategic accounts for First Data InfoSource, a business unit that focuses on demographic information of credit card customers. "If we don't work with integrity, we won't be in business very long."
MasterCard International was enthusiastically hawking its new Market Advisor software, which it touted as an invaluable aid to cobranding financial institutions and their retail partners.
The software, delivered through MasterCard Online, enables banks to analyze purchase trends by merchant categories, geographic locations, and card product performance. It can be used to create new products, build brand loyalty, enhance customer service, select marketing partners and conduct market research.
The package will cost $25,000 for the first year and about $18,000 for ensuing years, according to Paul M. Jamieson, MasterCard's vice president for cobranding and affinity marketing.
"Cobranding programs are not one-time partnerships," said Rita Champ, also a MasterCard vice president. "This is a long-term relationship.
Many retailers have resisted cobranding, clinging to the proprietary store card.
"A lot of (retailers) fear they'll lose control over their customer and customer service," said Ms. Champ.
Visa U.S.A. emphasized its various sports sponsorships through three celebrities - former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, a member of the National Football League Hall of Fame; former Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan; and Olympic gymnast Bart Conner - all of whom signed "several thousand" autographs and posed for pictures.
Visa also distributed an Ernst & Young survey of retail payment systems that it commissioned. The report noted that Americans ran up credit card debt in 1995 at a rate four times the increase in their paychecks.
The report also found that the average household spends nearly 20% of disposable income each month to reduce credit card debt - the highest level since 1990.