Dollars & Sense: No-clip coupons

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2005 - 10:00 PM

Melanie Clay of Woodbury would no more clip a coupon than she would shop at a secondhand store. A bit of a spendthrift, Clay rolls her eyes at the thought of searching for a tiny piece of paper in her already cluttered purse.

Three Winners, a relatively new Twin Cities-based internet coupon program, hopes to appeal to shoppers like Clay.

Rather than produce a coupon book like Happenings or Gold C, Three Winners saves its members cash by having them print out coupons themselves from their computer, then use those coupons at businesses such as Cold Stone Creamery, Buffalo Wild Wings or Lettermen Sports.

And here's an even more modern twist: Members who have a cell phone with Web-enabled capability can bring up the coupon on their display screen, show it to the merchant and get the discount, sans paper.

Even Clay, a Web-savvy consumer in her 30s, is impressed.

Patti Sue Inhofer of Plymouth also likes Three Winners. Inhofer, her husband and two teenagers are on a Nextel share plan. Since they always carry their cell phones, which include Web capability, the family's coupon use has increased.

"I always kept coupons in my car, but every time I wanted to use one, we'd be in my husband's car," Inhofer said. With Three Winners, she no longer has that problem.

Inhofer's 17-year-old daughter introduced her to the option. She was selling Three Winners memberships as a school fundraiser. Inhofer knew the coupon program was different when her 15-year-old son got interested, too.

"Most teenagers aren't big coupon users," she said. Her son bought a Happenings book for his own school fundraiser and never opened it.

When she redeems a coupon at a restaurant or store, she often finds a staff person half her age who describes the process as "cool." Unfortunately, because the concept is so new, Inhofer said she almost always finds herself teaching the staff the new technology.

Kevin Patton of Rochester, who travels to the Twin Cities regularly for business, likes knowing that he didn't forget or misplace paper coupons when he wants to use them. With his cell phone, the coupons are always at his side. "I can be in Maple Grove, and search by phone for restaurants within a five-mile radius of my location. I can even specify Italian or Chinese restaurants," he said.

Merchants, members, charities

Three Winners co-owner Kris Wilson, an admitted techno geek and shopper who hates to go anywhere without a coupon, hopes that coupons on cell phones will find a market among coupon-phobic young adults and men.

She and her husband, Jim, of Plymouth launched the website in 2003 to give back to the community. The name "Three Winners" refers to merchants, members and charities, each of whom benefits from the service when coupons are used.

They chose a software product that could benefit high schools, athletic associations and charitable organizations. At least 50 percent of each membership fee goes to a fundraiser or charity of choice.

Still, some merchants and members have been slow to catch on. Currently, less than 1 percent of the 10,000 Three Winners members redeem coupons from their cell phones. Some users may be reluctant to pay the extra $5 to $20 per month for Web access, or may not know that it's already included in their phone package, Wilson said. Others may not have figured out the Web feature yet.

Even if the member has mastered the technology, some merchants haven't. Usually, the member just takes the employee through the steps, displaying the discount details, pressing 3 for the merchant's address and restrictions, and then 1 for redemption.

Once the coupon has been redeemed, the cell phone displays a message indicating that the coupon has already been redeemed if the user tries to access it again.

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