Service Mails Online Coupon Requests to Consumers

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Coupons Inc. has developed technology that enables consumer packaged goods marketers, retailers and pharmaceutical companies to deliver Internet-generated coupons to consumers through the U.S. Postal Service.

Users include ConAgra for its Act II popcorn, Masterfoods for Twix, Dial Corp., Nestle and S.C. Johnson. They use Coupons Inc.'s CustomerCare Print & Mail technology as well as its printable coupon technology, as do Valassis and News America Marketing.

"They can do this for about a third of what it would cost the [company's] consumer affairs department to field the call and fulfill a direct mail coupon request," said Steven R. Boal, president/CEO of Coupons Inc., San Francisco.

It typically costs $3.50 for a corporate consumer affairs department in call, postage and handling charges for mailing a coupon. Coupons Inc. charges $1.25, including postage, for its CustomerCare Print & Mail option.

The new product works simply. Consumers visiting a Web site using Coupons Inc.'s technology are asked to install a Coupon Print Manager if they never have printed a coupon before.

If the visitor cannot install the Print Manager, Coupons Inc.'s servers automatically present a troubleshooting guide. It lists common issues and their solutions. At the bottom of this guide is a form that offers the option of receiving the coupon by mail. The form can be made available elsewhere on the site.

Once consumers choose the Print & Mail option, they are required to enter their mailing address and submit the form. Coupons Inc.'s servers then process the submitted information via encrypted coding to ensure the recipient has not already printed the coupon off the site. Fraud is avoided this way.

After the request is accepted, a letter with a coupon is automatically printed and mailed to the consumer. Coupons Inc. handles fulfillment of the z-folded full-color mail piece. The mailing is branded with the client's text and graphics.

Also, the coupon sent bears all the fraud protection, purchase-behavior tracking and data analysis features of the more typical consumer-printed coupons.

Boal said that an estimated 10 percent of the online population nationwide cannot print coupons directly off a site. There are various reasons. For example, subscribers of MSN TV, previously WebTV, may not have the option or even printers at home. Machines may be shared, like in libraries. Or corporate or personal firewalls and pop-up killer programs may be installed.

In addition, consumers may have higher-than-normal browser security settings. Most simple of all, they may not have ready access to a printer attached to the computer they are using.

Though it will not disclose its share, Coupons Inc. claims to lead the $75 million to $100 million a year market of online coupons.

"As marketers become budget-serious about the Internet as a significant platform for consumer outreach, it's crucial for return on investment that 100 percent of the responding consumers are able to be serviced equally," Boal said. "That's what we're trying to do for marketers with Print & Mail."

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