Off Target: Target scares off a guest

For all you upscale shoppers out there, add this to your list of Why It'll Be Cool When Target Comes to Town: They call customers "guests." The concept is so elegant, I half expect to see shopping carts encrusted with rhinestones.

But wait a minute. If they plan on calling me their guest, I expect to be treated like one. And judging by Courteney Stuart's recent experience at the Target in Short Pump, that's not guaranteed.

If Stuart's name sounds familiar, it's because she's the Hook senior editor who had the unfortunate experience at the Washington Park Pool in early June ["Plop, plop: Pool poop spoils outing," July 11, 2002]. Now her summer's been further sullied by a recent trip to Target, where she wrestled two kids' dressers and some maternity clothes up to the checkout line and wrote a check for the total, which was over $200. As she later emailed me, the cashier put her check through the register, then studied the receipt that came out.

"In what seemed like an incredibly loud voice, he said, 'I'm sorry, but we can't take your check. Do you have another method of payment?'" Stuart reports.

That's gotta be embarrassing. "Everyone is looking at you," Stuart says. "It would seem that you have some problem with writing bad checks." She quickly paid with her debit card and then called the number for the check-screening company, Certegy, which was listed on the receipt.

The Certegy employee reviewed the transaction and told her there was nothing wrong with her check; it simply "did not meet the criteria Certegy uses to screen checks." Stuart asked if he could tell her the criteria, so that she could avoid the same situation in the future.

"No," she claims he replied, "because then if you wanted to write a bad check you'd know what we are looking for." Stuart theorizes that two factors were against her: The check was for a large amount, and she'd never written a check at Target before. But why leave her to spin theories instead of offering answers?

According to Claude in Certegy's Customer Care Department, the reasons aren't always apparent even to Certegy employees because of the way their computers are programmed. Still, if Stuart's account of the phone call is correct, the system seems needlessly frustrating for the consumer.

Certegy, perhaps due to the nature of its business, seems to thrive on secrecy. For instance, the website offers only an email address for inquiries from the press, so I dutifully emailed a summary of Stuart's experience and then asked why Certegy doesn't post its criteria so that consumers will be free to choose whether they want to pay by check. After a couple of hours with no response, I called Certegy's Customer Care Department and spoke with Claude (who, naturally, refused to divulge his last name).

Claude was firmly convinced that I was trying to get details about Stuart's rejected check that they could release only to her. After we went in circles so many times I was dizzy, I began trying to get a phone number for public relations. Instead, he offered (about 13 times) Certegy's street address then hung up on me.

The media-relations person, incidentally, did respond, with a very reasonable overview of the kinds of factors check screeners have to consider, not all of which are obvious e.g., the specific store's loss history.

I can understand that Target needs to guard against bad checks, and that a check is not a guaranteed form of payment (unlike a credit or debit card). I also understand why Certegy has sophisticated software that considers a variety of factors, some difficult to pin down, before accepting or rejecting a check.

Here's what I don't understand: why Target wouldn't train its cashiers in graceful responses such as, "It doesn't mean your check is bad; if you're not in Certegy's system, and you write a large check, they'll turn it down." In my opinion, that would have been a simple way to avoid embarrassing a "guest."

We'll never know why Target doesn't do that; its Media Relations department declined to return my call. What do you suppose they call reporters persona non grata?


Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.