Coordinated Coupons
February 13, 2005 8:30 PM   Subscribe

I sure wish that one could just input coupon codes (from, for instance, newspaper inserts) online and have them link up to our userids at whatever groceries so where-ever we are, our coupons would redeem at the checkout.

Googling coupon-related terms results in the spammiest craplinks evar. My queries, then, are: does this exist today? Did someone try to build it back in the dotcom era? If so, what was its' fate?

(At dinner tonight, my wife mentioned that when she last visited our local Safeway, she'd saved $10 via coupons. When I last visited, coupon-free, I saved nothing, though our initial bills were the same. We share a Safeway big brother card number, as do we at QFC, the other dominant chain in our neck of the woods. I grumbled that it would be nice if we could, you know, live in the twenty-first century.)
posted by mwhybark to Shopping (15 answers total)
Sounds like a good way to make a few bucks if you know how to make web applications!
posted by ontic at 8:36 PM on February 13, 2005

The only difficulty is, you're assuming the stores want to make it easier to use coupons. They don't. The reason is price discrimination. Say their cost on cans of Spoo is $3. They would like to sell it to you at, say, $4. At that price, 80% of Spoo buyers would buy it. Let's say, however, that some people just can't afford $4 a can for Spoo. They can only afford $3.50.

The coupons allow the store to sell the canned Spoo at $4 to people who would rather pay $4 than spend time clipping coupons, while selling at at $3.50 to people who won't pay more than $3.50.

They don't just lower the price to $3.50 for everyone, because if they did, they'd be giving up that 50 cents a can that 80% of Spoo buyers would be willing, even eager, to pay.

So if you make it easier to use the coupons, it defeats the whole purpose of the coupon, which means stores won't go for it.
posted by kindall at 8:59 PM on February 13, 2005

Response by poster: I understand that, Jerry.

But I worked on one of several competing applications that allowed users to concatenate and trade competing loyalty-point programas back in the dotcom era. For exactly the reasons you cite, the loyalty-point sponsors were resistant to the idea.

Just because the store or sponsor is resistant to the idea does not mean that it hasn't - or couldn't - be done.

Furthermore, couponing or membership-based discounting shares the larger goal of increasing dollar volume at the point of sale, and therefore there is a reasonable pitch for this sort of service even to the redeeming entities.
posted by mwhybark at 9:18 PM on February 13, 2005

Response by poster: Also, to be clear:

I'm looking for a service that would allow a couponer to manage their couponing at home, online, and tie it to one or more member accounts.

The only difference in the use and practice of the coupon would be that you don't have to bring it in to the store. In theory my and my wife's userid at either QFC or Safeway would honor the discount at point-of-sale without the necessity of physically presenting the coupon.
posted by mwhybark at 9:22 PM on February 13, 2005

Not a bad idea. Maybe the extra incentive needed for retailers is the naturally appropriate advertising displayed at the bottom of whatever web-app is designed to do the eCoupon organizing. Cross sell, cross sell, cross sell.
posted by fatllama at 9:36 PM on February 13, 2005

Some stores do this. For example: Kroger (with more details). I would expect it to be on a store-by-store basis, though, not one centralized service. That Kroger site is run by, but it doesn't look like you can sign up for any other store-specific things there.

So my advice would be to look on the website of any store with which you have a membership. I found that site above from Kroger's main website.
posted by whatnotever at 10:50 PM on February 13, 2005

I just can't see why a store would let a third party do that, especially if it's intended to work at their competition as well. The question to ask is, why would a store pay you to do this for them? (The customer's not going to pay; since they're clipping coupons, they're obviously price-conscious.)
posted by kindall at 12:19 AM on February 14, 2005

In the dotcom times there was a scanner that was sort of like what you're talking about. It was called a c:cat or something like that. It was molded plastic that looked like a cat (the idea being that it would be a peripheral device like the mouse, ha ha), and that you would use it to scan barcodes embedded in newspaper advertisements. It was trying to merge offline and online advertising, essentially.

I think the company imploded along with everyone else. I imagine that A) requiring an additional device was a substantial barrier to entry for most people, and B) most early-adopters weren't really into coupons at the time, and the company was counting on a user base that was both into coupons and computer toys.

If someone else here can provide you with the actual name of that device, you might be able to Google some more on that company. cc:at? c:cat? coupon cat? I can't remember.

I don't think your idea is a bad idea at all. I've also thought that it would be a good idea to merge all customer loyalty programs into one card, so that you get the discounts at any stores you use, just by swiping the one card (which could maybe be synched with your credit card, so you don't even need additional cards. Of course, privacy advocates would go nuts over the data mining users would be subjecting themselves to, but whatever.

Keep us posted with any developments you make on it.
posted by Alt F4 at 4:21 AM on February 14, 2005

Ah ha. It was the :CueCat. And the first two links I found at Google were from reviews from the year 2000 that slammed it.
Joel on Software
Poynter Online

Note, though, that they were slamming the device and the business model of the company behind the :CueCat, not the idea of fusing coupons with customer loyalty cards.

I still think your idea's a good one.
posted by Alt F4 at 4:31 AM on February 14, 2005

Response by poster: the cuecat came up when we were discussing the idea - it's the best-known example of a mass-market consumer-oriented bar-code reader; obviously something similar would be helpful in this idea.

Again, Jerry, it's a dollar-volume pitch. Manufacturer coupons already are store-independent. The theoretical capital for the service would have to come from the coupon issuers, not the stores.

Don't the issuers also provide an ancillary revenue source to the stores via some sort of redemption fee paid on the coupons themselves? If so, there may be labor-cost savings to both thte issuers and the stores.
posted by mwhybark at 7:07 AM on February 14, 2005

The coupons are store-independent, but they're essentially cash as far as the store's concerned. Tying them to the loyalty card -- boy, you're going to have a tough nut to crack with that, I think.

The CueCat, BTW, was for nothing so fancy as scanning coupons. The idea was that you'd see an ad in, say, Wired (which sent out a bazillion free CueCats to subscribers), scan the code with your CueCat, and be taken to a Web page with more information about the product. It was stupid because the scanner would actually scan just about any barcode, but the software only recognized codes that someone had paid to put into the CueCat registry. The idea, I think, was that eventually you could scan anything with a barcode and get information about it. They probably hoped Amazon would pay to capture all ISBNs and so forth. But it never happened. I suppose coupons would eventually have been on their agenda, but it wasn't in the initial pitch.

I still have one... it's a pretty good bar code scanner and the codes, while they are encoded, are easily deciphered.
posted by kindall at 7:42 AM on February 14, 2005

I think it's a great idea. You could sell it to the large grocers (think Albertson's/Jewel/Shaw's/Acme) as a way for them to bring customers to their store and away from the competition. Another service perk that differentiated otherwise-similar stores.

I bet that if it was designed well stores wouldn't have the problem with it that kindall identified, because the "coupon clipping" would still be an active endeavor. It's not like every coupon in the world would be inputted and applied to a customer's purchase, right? Just the ones that they manually entered.

The biggest problem I would imagine is that coupons say things like "50 cents off when you buy two cans of JungleJim's Pasta Sauce, size 16.7 oz or larger." If you didn't have the physical coupon with you, it would be like "okay, I have a coupon for JungleJim's, but I can't remember what it is for. Does the 13 oz qualify? Do I have to buy 2?" People who wanted to take advantage of your program would have to be pretty organized.

Still, a cool idea. One I've never seen or heard of.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:44 AM on February 14, 2005

It's not like every coupon in the world would be inputted and applied to a customer's purchase, right? Just the ones that they manually entered.

If it's a Web site, pretty soon people will be entering codes that people e-mailed them. There will be apps to grab all possible existing coupon codes and bulk-upload them to the site. Now that kind of app, I might pay money for, but it's not something the grocery stores would like, I don't think.
posted by kindall at 8:39 AM on February 14, 2005

In the days of dot com yore, I was in some program that essentially let you name your own price on groceries, through Priceline. Here's an article - undated. I don't think they still do this - for a while in the late 90s it worked at almost every supermarket in the greater Baltimore metro area and it was pretty cool; you could do most of your shopping online, then just walk around the store picking stuff up. I got some amazing deals. It's not exactly the same as your idea, but it's close.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:26 AM on February 14, 2005

Response by poster: that's really interesting, mgl.

I still hear you, Jer, but think there's something here. I was wondering if someone had mined this in round one, and the answer appears to be no.

The bulk problem you describe was something we had begun to deal with on the points trading system. The short answer is: it's not always a problem, but you have to educate your sponsoring participants why that's the case. Micro-napster, dig? Further, you can prevent this by serializing the tokens such that one token = one discount instance.

Given that technique, for a marketer, the best strategy is to randomly seed unserialized discounts in to a largely serialized discounting pool.

Micro-napster, with prizes!

Agent: the idea here is that you don't have to know, beyond remembering, or trying to, what discounts you have lined up. If you come to the checkout with coupon-based discounts that you are eligible for, the discount just applies.
posted by mwhybark at 7:56 PM on February 14, 2005

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