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Coupon Cutting?! This Is Cyberspace

Innovations: SuperMarkets Online takes an old, time-consuming shopping ritual and makes it, well, new and time-consuming.

June 20, 1996|ANGELA PETTERA

Iheard you could download coupons from the World Wide Web. Being the kind of person who shouldn't be around a sharp pair of scissors for too long, I decided this new coupon venue might be for me.

SuperMarkets Online, launched June 13 by Catalina Marketing Corp., boasts coupons not only from national manufacturers but also from local supermarkets. After typing in the e-mail address--http://www.supermarkets.com--I was greeted with a cheery little grocery store front complete with striped awning. But before I was allowed to open the red door marked "Enter," I had to type my ZIP code in the box provided so that only my area supermarkets would appear during my session.

The main menu displayed five options: Product Offers, Supermarket Specials, Recipe Center, List Maker and Check Out.

Product Offers didn't exactly seem jammed with manufacturers' coupons, but after all, this was a new service. I selected a coupon for Fruitopia by clicking on the box labeled "Add to Checkout List." I also chose one for a product I'd never heard of, Nestea Cool in the 12-pack. There weren't that many choices here, and anyway, this was fun.

I also took the time to fill out an electronic questionnaire for Hills Brothers coffee. I don't drink coffee at home, but hey, it was free. I'm guessing they'll send me a rebate coupon for it via snail mail.

After that, I was ready to move to Supermarket Specials, which showed, naturally, what specials my local supermarkets were running that week, including checkout specials. I observed that those checkout specials looked eerily similar from one store to the next. I marked the checkout special for Breyers Ice Cream (buy two, get a coupon for $1 worth of groceries).

Now on to the Recipe Center. There I found recipes from cooking teacher Burt Wolf for appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and desserts. They seemed quick and easy to prepare, so I chose some of those to download as well, sending the ingredients to my electronic shopping list.

After jumping to the Shopping List site, however, I decided that trying to make out an actual shopping list from the service's table was way too tedious and time-consuming. If I had undecipherable handwriting, I might have reconsidered.

Then came the moment I was waiting for--Check Out. I'd selected my coupons and specials and picked out my recipes and ingredients, and I was anxious to print all this out. The only hitch: I had to choose just one supermarket. Dang. I wanted coupons for more than one. But there weren't that many specials and, anyway, this was for science. Resigned, I selected my faithful local market and pressed the print button. Out of the printer came my recipes, shopping list and coupons.

The coupons were small and kind of blurry. Would these things really work? I decided to call the toll-free information and technical support line to find out.

After dialing (888) SHOP123, I asked a nice-sounding woman if these blurry coupons of mine could be read by the grocery store scanners. I told her I had Netscape and a laser printer. The laser was great, she said, but Netscape tends to print coupons smaller than normal.

Oh. What if I had a dot matrix printer? Would the coupons be scannable then? She told me no one with a dot matrix had ever called her, but people with ink jets had no problems. OK.

What about coupon fraud? How did her company prevent me from downloading 6,000 coupons for Naya water? She reminded me that I'd had to enter my name and valid e-mail address to make it through Check Out, which is where the coupons are downloaded.

In addition, each coupon has a number printed on it, which corresponds to the user and the session during which it was downloaded. SuperMarkets Online could therefore bar abusers from logging on again. Wow. Coupon cops. I decided to mind my manners.

Armed with coupons and hopped up on cyberspace technology, I drove to the supermarket. First I had to find the Fruitopia. Got it.

Next, the Nestea Cool. Hmmm, not on the shelf next to the regular Nestea. Maybe my market didn't carry this brand.

Over to the frozen foods to grab two containers of Breyers Ice Cream. I would never be able to eat two gallons by myself, but this was an adventure. I was willing to buy anything to test out this new coupon venue. On to the checkout stand.

I showed the checkout girl my coupons and proudly told her where I had gotten them. She had heard of SuperMarkets Online but had not yet seen the coupons. Yahoo! I was the first kid on my block to try these babies out.

But they wouldn't scan. Too small and blurry. She punched the numbers in by hand. They worked.

And what about Nestea Cool? Did this supermarket carry it? An employee went to look and brought me back exactly what I needed. I bought that too. She rang up the ice cream and I waited for my checkout coupon to wind its way out of her machine. No go.

What's the deal? She called the manager over and he looked at my printout. Then he checked his records. "Breyers Ice Cream isn't on special, but Dreyers Ice Cream is," he told me. "Looks like somebody made a typo."

Back I went to the frozen foods to switch brands. Back I came to the checkout line. After scanning the Dreyers, still no coupon. The manager assured me it should have worked this time and handed me a $1 bill. I couldn't argue with customer service like that.

There will probably continue to be glitches with SuperMarkets Online while consumers and grocery stores work out the kinks, but even so, getting coupons from cyberspace to work at the corner store may just be worth the trouble.

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