2009.47 | Paper Free Offers Please

Given the state of the global economy, special offers have become the new normal in retail.  Retailers are increasingly able to offer relevant offers on products and services desired by individual consumers.  Consumers who are loyal in these fickle times are rewarded with great deals. 

A technology decision such as requiring a barcoded coupon can have a heavy influence on the closure of a sale.  If a physical coupon is required and forgotten, there can be disasterous concequences.  The consumer may make a special trip to a location, spend sigificant time and energy to fill a basket, and then discover that the offer can not be redeemed. 

The end result is an abandoned basket, at best.  At worst, a customer will feel cheated by the retailer for forgetting a slip of paper.  This sort of small annoyance finds its way to places like Consumerist, or onto Twitter.  While these small annoyances were not worth addressing in the past – with no facility for consumers to vent such a small issue, these items could be ignored.  These new media provide instant response, and the potential for massive backlashes never before possible.

The opportunity to bring a consumer closer to a retailer – to make them more loyal – has been transformed into a pain point for the consumer.  And why the pain point?  Why is it necessary that we all kill trees and feed toner onto paper so that a barcode can be scanned?   The reasons are myriad, and include:

  • Limiting the offer – Perhaps retailers don’t want to provide the offer to the general population, but to a select audience.  Perhaps they are limiting the stock for a BOGO or free item.  While this is sometimes the case, many offers generally encourage you to send them to friends and family and use them over and over again. 
  • Sweethearting – Retailers want to reign in associates who give discounts to people on their whim – they could give it to everyone.  Using a barcode provides an audit trail with the paper coupon and the scanning requirement that will minimize the impact of a dishonest cashier providing discounts to unqualified individuals.
  • Tracking – Any campaign requires measurement, and some campaigns may want to track where the consumer found the offer, so they can understand their multi-channel mix.  There may be different barcodes for e-mail, flyers, newspaper ads, for whatever medium was used to validate the offer source.

There has to be some way to meet these very reasonable retailer needs in some manner without the handicap of a paper coupon – a 19th century innovation.  Unfortunately, barcodes can’t be scanned directly from most mobile devices, so this problem may take some time to be resolved with technology.  While there are some amazing opportunities using 2d barcodes or coupon apps to bridge this divide that are wholeheartedly encouraged, an interim measure that works for all consumers – not just mobile users – is key to avoid the bad press on line that can sink brand capital – particularly in the online world where bad press spreads so quickly.

As always the best route is to make the technology as invisible to the consumer as possible.  Why not make the unique barcode something that can be entered manually if the client reads it off their device to the cashier?  If there are concerns about limiting or sweethearting, why not have a code that the cashiers can enter manually if a customer mentions the offer, and a different code if it is scanned?  If the coupon is fundamentally required, offer a lesser discount without it. 

No matter the answer, it’s important to consider the desired end state, and not get caught in technology for it’s own sake – be it a barcode or a mobile device.  The solution has to be simple for the consumer.

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