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Previously in Web Citations:

99.04.14
Not Your Father's Antiwar Movement

Are these the new peaceniks? Opposition to Clinton's war has made for some very strange bedfellows.

99.04.08
Someone Who Cares Wants You to Know

As Emily Post might have said, sometimes anonymity is the best policy.

99.04.01
Wheeling and Dealing

It all comes down to this: Would you buy a used (or new) car from these Web sites?

99.03.17
Lifetime Achievement

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was a filmmaker who kept his distance from Hollywood. His vision appears ever more original -- and lonely.

99.03.04
Modem Bride

Wedding planning made so easy even your mother can handle it.

99.02.25
Be Fruitful and Multiply

When it comes to modern reproductive technology, many are turning to the Web for a helping hand.

99.02.17
Democratic Vistas

"I sing the body electric," Walt Whitman wrote. Little did he know what he was prophesying.

99.02.03
Something for Everyone

As more and more live video comes to the Web, there's always something on -- but is there anything to watch?

99.01.27
The Law and Spirit of the Letter

The digital age may (or may not) spell the death of print, but it has breathed new life into the art of type.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.





Cutting-Edge Coupons
April 22, 1999

It's All Free! In 1894, Asa Candler, the druggist who owned the formula for Coca-Cola, began giving out handwritten tickets for free glasses of his new drink. So began one of the most phenomenally successful business enterprises of the twentieth century -- and Coke hasn't ended up doing so badly, either. Candler's ticket idea, so the story goes, was the genesis of the American coupon industry, which in 1997 distributed 276 billion coupons around the nation, 4.8 billion of which, worth $2.9 billion, were redeemed.

Those are remarkable numbers, but they illustrate that getting coupons into the right hands is an extremely inefficient and expensive thing to do -- fewer than 2 percent are ever used. This may soon change, as companies realize the potential of distributing coupons online. "The advent of computer technology," Food & Beverage Marketing, a trade magazine, wrote not long ago,
will permanently redefine the coupon medium, if not the message. Marketing to millions one-at-a-time has become a catch phrase in advertising circles, a popular theory explored in professional journals. Coupon technology just converted that theory into a marketplace reality.

One good example of coupon technology can be found at ValuPage, a site -- launched in 1998 and operated by SuperMarkets On-Line, Inc. -- that claims to be one of the hundred most-visited places on the Internet, with a weekly e-mail subscription list of more than 300,000 people and with coupons that are already honored by more than 9,000 supermarkets nationwide. Here's how the ValuPage system works: a consumer uses the site to focus on a specific geographic area and specific kinds of products, prints out a page of coupons, brings it to a participating supermarket, buys the items in question, and in exchange receives "Web bucks" -- coupons, redeemable at face value during a subsequent visit, that can be used for anything in the supermarket. Everybody walks away happy, according to SuperMarkets On-Line: the consumer saves money without having to sort through wads of unwanted coupons, the supermarket has greatly increased its chances of repeat visits, and the marketer was able to target an interested consumer directly and cheaply. Those without computers or modems won't be left out, either; coupon computers apparently will soon be appearing beside ATM machines in participating supermarkets.

CoolSavings.com
Needless to say, ValuPage is not alone in this business. Internet-coupon sources are proliferating, as sites like coolsavings.com, hotcoupons.com, valpak.com, and coupondirectory.com -- to name only a few -- illustrate, and there's no doubt that the coupon industry will in the years to come transform itself dramatically. Whatever happens, though, the business objective will surely remain the same: to get consumers hooked so that they buy products without coupons. In other words, as Food & Beverage Marketing has put it, it will remain the case that "timing is everything, in life and in couponing."

--Toby Lester


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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

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