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Site Lures Rural Visitors With Lower Access Costs

PLATTEVILLE, WI — How do you get more consumers to visit your Web site when you are in a rural area with low Internet usage and expensive Internet connections?

Act as an Internet service provider and online shopping mall, offering lower access costs or free long-distance phone charges as consumers buy more goods through your site.

That is the strategy of Broadbeck Enterprises' Dick's Supermarkets chain, which operates eight stores in rural Wisconsin. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of residents in the area have Internet access, and most pay long-distance charges to hook up with a national ISP, such as America Online.

With the launch this summer of its portal site, Savingsclubcard.com, the grocer's goal is to significantly raise the percentage of Wisconsin residents online and add value to its frequent shopper program, Savings Club Card. As the primary grocer in the region with about a 70 percent market share, many residents are Savings Club cardholders.

In addition to community news and events, Savingsclubcard.com features an online shopping mall, including Disney, L.L. Bean and The Sharper Image. When shoppers buy items at the mall, they earn up to 5 percent of their total amount spent in free groceries.

Dick's also retails about 200 of its products on the site weekly, at regular prices.

“The value is in the phone time or Net savings, rather than price point,” said Ken Robb, senior vice president of marketing at Dick's. “It's certainly different from how the supermarket industry has typically functioned. I don't know if we'll be able to hold [out].”

The site charges $14.95 per month for unlimited access, but shoppers who purchase products on the site earn credit toward the ISP service or free long-distance phone time. Shoppers who sign up also receive a “benefits” package, providing emergency road service, discount travel and other discounted items, through Universal Promotions, Pittsburgh.

For now, most shoppers are interested in the free long-distance reward, simply because they are not active on the Internet, Robb said. “Offering the phone program allows us to provide something of benefit to everyone. Even though the goal is to increase interest in the Internet, I think it would be unreasonable for us to presume to drive that to a majority of households,” he said.

Another Savingsclubcard.com attraction is Universal Promotions' eight-draw bingo game. Consumers receive electronic bingo cards and earn “bingo bucks” by playing. The bucks can be used to bid on merchandise weekly, and users are registered in a sweepstakes for a new car each time they play.

The site also includes options for consumers to collect product samples and receive coupons, as well as an education section. Students can search for college scholarships and can search Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dick's plans to start e-mail promotions for the ISP in the near future (many of the chain's cardholders opt in for e-mails), and it already devotes one page of its weekly, eight-page newspaper ad to the new program.

Robb also plans to work with local community organizations and centers on joint marketing. For example, a community center with Net access can advertise its events on the portal page.

Down the road, Dick's shoppers also will see a more personalized portal page, along with electronic coupons. “We're already involved with several major vendors of electronic coupons, so there will be offers for consumer promotions,” Robb said.

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