January 6, 2014, 2:53 PM

Editor's Letter: Target’s bad day

A security breach exposes consumers’ personal data, but Target’s response is anything but personal.

The day before this issue went to press Target Corp. made headlines when it confirmed that its point-of-sale terminals had been compromised starting in late November. The breach means the account numbers and related data of 40 million credit or debit cards used to pay in stores may be in criminals' hands. Buyers on Target.com were not affected, underscoring the reality that web shopping today may well be more secure than shopping in stores.

For now, let's set aside the financial ramifications of the breach and look at how the retailer is handling its crisis communications in the immediate aftermath. A notice on Target.com's home page today directs consumers to a statement that encourages customers who may be affected to check their financial statements and credit reports for unusual activity. It says "we deeply regret the inconvenience this may cause," and that "guests can shop with confidence" because it resolved the issue. That's rather cheeky of them, considering, but hardly surprising.

Moving onto Facebook and Twitter, Target's accounts are unusually quiet. Target's official Twitter account, @Target, which had been broadcasting about 10 tweets a day in December, posted two the day Target confirmed the breach, both containing links to the Target.com notice. It made a similar announcement on Facebook. Within a day some 2,900 Facebook users had commented on the post, and many were not Liking the news. Some of the most vitriolic comments were from consumers with Target REDcard accounts—Target-branded credit and debit cards—noting how Target wasn't answering their calls. A Target representative responded to most such complaints with a stock message on Facebook, saying it was building up customer service capacity to handle the volume of inquiries. That's all consumers heard from Target until late Friday, more than 24 hours later, when Target released a video and statement from CEO Gregg Steinhafel in which he reiterated Target's actions and said it would be providing credit monitoring to affected consumers. He also offered a 10% discount valid in stores for the next two days.

That's 24 hours during which Target shoppers were left scrambling trying to figure out what to do, with little assistance from Target, and that's a lifetime in social media. Consumers turn to social media so much these days, and they expect brands to be there, and talking. By doing virtually nothing, Target may have hurt itself more than it already had.

The story on page 30, "Focused on Success," may help Target understand why. It interprets data from Internet Retailer's forthcoming 2014 Social Media 500 to nail down the ROI of social media interactions for e-retailers. E-retail sales derived from social media grew 62.5% year over year in 2013, it says, and anything growing at such a rate should not be ignored.

Allison Enright, Editor

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