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Vital Information

BY Marianne Wilson

Information is power, particularly when it comes to energy consumption. Just ask Deneice Marshall, director of retail services for Brookshire Brothers Food & Pharmacy. The Lufkin, Texas-based chain receives a detailed analysis of its energy use each month via meter data reports. The reports summarize energy consumption for both Brookshire’s entire supermarket portfolio and each individual site. 


Brookshire receives the monthly, easy-to-interpret reports from Novar, Cleveland, whose sub-meters are installed in the company’s 73 supermarkets. 


“You get what you inspect, not what you expect, meaning that energy needs to be monitored,” Marshall said. “Sub-meters are among the most important tools that we use to monitor our energy consumption.” 


Marshall said Novar helps Brookshire achieve its energy and maintenance goals, and delivers automation of key information and peace-of-mind regarding meter infrastructure. 


The Novar sub-meters, which shadow the utility meters at each location, provide more granular, detailed data by system (such as lighting load, refrigeration load and the like) and record minute-by-minute energy usage. In effect, the meters give the chain a live feed as to what is occurring in each store on a near real-time basis. 


“Our monthly utility bills gave us a basic overview,” Marshall explained, “but sometimes the data was more than 60 days old. It was reactive, and we weren’t able to make changes to things that were actually happening. But the sub-meters provide the type of information that supports more precise corrective actions.”


As part of the reporting, Brookshire receives an annual consumption comparison per store, showing how a site is currently performing, and how it stacks up against the previous year. 


“Probably the most useful data we get has to do with energy usage per square foot,” Marshall said. “Some of our stores are larger than others. Energy-use-per-square-foot data, as opposed to a store’s total kilowatt hours, levels the playing field.”


Brookshire gets three different rankings of its stores based on the metric of energy use per square foot: One shows which stores consume the most energy while they are open, one shows the same for when the stores are closed, and one looks at the “total” consumption over the full 24 hours. 


Brookshire also receives detailed reports from each store location that include graphic depictions of energy use as compared with outside air temperature (from the reporting period compared with a year ago), graphic depiction of monthly consumption from one year to another and a graphic depiction of its daily-load profile.


“Our monthly summary also shows us when demand peaks were high — how high they were — and consumption and intensity information,” Marshall added. 


Brookshire uses the data it receives from Novar in numerous ways, such as launching investigations into stores with high energy use.


“The data allows us to easily identify sites operating outside of our corporate standards, outlier sites that need to be brought back into compliance in order to save energy—and money,” Marshall said. “We uncovered such things as corporate standards that weren’t being adhered to, open refrigerator doors and sloppy maintenance on equipment.” 


Brookshire has also used the energy information to help justify equipment updating, and to check into the programming of specific equipment that is driving high usage at the stores to find anomalies that were previously unknown. 


The information enables Brookshire to stay ahead of the maintenance curve by identifying issues and taking corrective action faster.


“We also use the data to show management how effective actions by the maintenance staff have paid off,” Marshall said. 


FUTURE: Brookshire is now looking to extend sub-metering to its 32 convenience stores (Polk Oil). It also is looking into Novar’s next-generation software, whose extended capabilities include automated demand response and correlation of meter, utility and POS data to understand their relationships.


“As in our other projects, we would start off with some test stores,” Marshall said. “We always start with small steps.” 


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Gift Cards: Opportunity and Issues for Retailers

BY CSA STAFF

The growth of gift cards has been nothing less than phenomenal. But while gift cards have come to provide a critical source of earnings, they also face an intensifying regulatory environment, including tax and financial reporting for gift cards, that has become increasingly complex.


Gift cards can be instrumental to improving a retailer’s cash flow and managing inventory. Perhaps the greatest benefit to retailers is that a sizable number of consumer gift card purchases are never redeemed. Estimates of the percentage of gift card balances that remain unredeemed — otherwise known as breakage — range from 10% to 19%.


But as gift card sales continue to surge, financial executives in the retail industry must carefully keep track of ever-changing tax, regulatory and financial reporting that can affect their bottom line. There is an uptick in scrutiny and regulation, especially within the past year. For consumers, there is increased protection under Title IV of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act), which went into effect in early 2010. The CARD Act restricts gift card issuers from charging fees on cards for 12 months and extends card expiration until five years after purchase. In addition, the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) and the IRS have recently issued new rules for companies with gift card programs, providing much-needed guidance.


Key issues for retailers to consider include:


State tax nexus issues for retailers: For gift card issuers to be subject to state taxation, the issuer must have nexus — a physical or economic presence sufficient to establish jurisdiction to tax — in that state. It is important for companies to understand what establishes nexus in the various states in which their gift cards are sold, since each state’s rules differ.


State escheat rules: The increasing popularity of gift cards also makes the management of escheat, or unclaimed property, liabilities an important issue. All U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and certain other foreign jurisdictions, have explicit unclaimed property reporting requirements. Unclaimed property liability is not a tax, but rather a liability under state succession laws relating to property rights.


Breakage and GAAP accounting: Retailers routinely sell gift cards to individuals with the expectation that a certain portion of these cards will never be used, called “breakage,” which mostly results from lost cards. Gift card breakage has certain accounting and state escheat implications, since it affects income recognition. These unredeemed dollars can have a significant influence on many companies’ bottom lines. If the card does not fall under specific state escheat rules, the question arises as to when companies can recognize income from breakage for financial statement purposes under GAAP.


The popularity of gift cards shows no sign of abating and will likely continue to grow as more consumers begin to use gift cards via convenient new mobile applications and to enjoy heightened consumer protections under the CARD Act. The benefits to gift card issuers remain numerous: increased sales, improved inventory management, better cash flow and higher profitability.


While there is also more scrutiny of gift cards from the IRS and the FRB, the new rules mean more clarity for gift card issuers with respect to federal tax accounting rules and the financial accounting treatment of advance payments. Companies have done a significant amount of work in the past to ensure that they are able to recognize gift card breakage income, but they must continue to evaluate and monitor the legislative changes in the various states in which they operate. The last thing retailers want is to have a financial restatement that is due to lack of awareness of changes in state regulations.


Giles Sutton is a state and local tax partner and the national retail tax practice leader for global accounting firm Grant Thornton ([email protected]); Mark Wuller is an audit partner and the national retail practice leader for the same firm ([email protected]). 


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Focus on: Workforce Management


BY By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

Cavender Stores, which specializes in western wear and cowboy boots for the entire family, has built an enviable reputation — and a loyal following — by delivering quality merchandise and top-notch customer service. Its sales associates are key to the success of Cavender’s in-store customer experience. 


“The retail environment is so competitive that we need to make sure that we provide the best customer service,” said Jim Thompson, CFO, Cavender’s, Tyler, Texas, which operates 57 stores. “We achieve this by making sure we schedule knowledgeable associates at the right times, while still watching our labor costs. It is a delicate balance to be adequately staffed while managing operating costs.”


It is also a challenging task when a company is managing its work force manually. While Cavender’s scheduling was automated, submission to corporate was manual and disparate. For example, some store managers submitted their plans via email, while others still created schedules by hand. 


“When the chain was smaller, a manual system was sufficient to control staffing and scheduling,” Thompson said. “As the chain grew to 57 stores operating in four states, however, it became difficult to distribute information.” 


The process also took a toll on employee payments. For example, associates clock in to their shift through a time clock integrated to the store’s point-of-sale system. All employee hours are transferred to a spreadsheet, and data is applied to the company’s payroll system for payment. 


Since everything is done manually, there is no surefire way to validate schedules with the hours employees actually worked. The manual system also does not protect the chain against “buddy punching,” a fraudulent practice whereby an employee clocks in for a friend who may be late or didn’t show up for their shift. 


Realizing it needed an automated solution to optimize its work force and support its customer service, Cavender’s began searching for a workforce management suite in the first quarter of 2010. The company wanted an affordable solution and sought to work with a technology provider that would keep its corporate culture in mind, according to Thompson. 


“We also needed to partner with a company that was familiar with the small-to-medium-sized market and that could work with a small IT group that was operational, as well as technically focused,” he added. 


The chain selected Kronos, Chelmsford, Mass., and is currently integrating various pieces of the supplier’s browser-based workforce management suite. The first step in the multi-phase implementation was the integration of Kronos’ human resources and payroll applications, which are expected to go live in the summer and in October, respectively. 


“We are linking the payroll solution with our time clock, which will automate the process and take the human steps out of the equation,” Thompson said. “It will also streamline our hiring process as new hires apply at store-level. All data will be input into the manager’s workstation, and it will be transferred into the HR system. Currently that has to be done manually at our corporate office.”


During the first quarter of 2012, Cavender’s will focus on the suite’s scheduling and forecasting modules, as well as workforce optimization. These three pieces will give the corporate office and district managers online access to store scheduling to ensure that all locations are adequately staffed. It will also provide suggested schedules to Cavender’s managers based on forecasts developed from historical sales data.


“Some stores do a great job at scheduling, but some are not as good,” Thompson said. “Now it will be easier to identify those stores that do well, and share their best practices with other locations. It will lead to scheduling consistency across the chain.”


Thompson expects the solution to deliver a “significant cost savings,” and he expects a return on its investment within two years. 


“More importantly,” he added, “we are expecting to improve staffing in our stores so that we can impact our top-line growth, and comply with internal policies, as well as state and federal labor guidelines.”

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