BIG RETAILERS JOIN PROGRAM USING INTERNET FOR COUPONS

WAYNE, N.J. -- Several large retailers have joined a new Internet-based promotional program through which consumers can print coupons off their own personal computers, then redeem them for certificates toward future purchases at participating stores."The on-line promotion entitles customers to select items on-screen, print them, then redeem the accumulated discounts for gift certificates toward future

WAYNE, N.J. -- Several large retailers have joined a new Internet-based promotional program through which consumers can print coupons off their own personal computers, then redeem them for certificates toward future purchases at participating stores.

"The on-line promotion entitles customers to select items on-screen, print them, then redeem the accumulated discounts for gift certificates toward future shopping trips," said Andrew DePaolis, corporate vice president of advertising and marketing for Grand Union Co. here. "The key is to bring the consumer back to the store."

Consumers link to the program, called ValuPage, through Supermarkets Online, Greenwich, Conn., the Internet division of Catalina Marketing, St. Petersburg, Fla., which coordinates the on-line program.

While ValuPage is still new, approximately 2,000 stores are currently offering the program, according to a source. "Each week we gain approximately 300 new stores. Our goal is to have 4,500 stores signed on within the first week of January."

As shoppers log on to ValuPage's web site, www.supermarkets.com, they enter their ZIP code to view a selection of stores in their area. Once the retailer is chosen, the week's featured discounts are revealed.

Customers click on their desired incentives, then print out the page to bring to the store for redemption. Upon checkout, a bar code, printed at the top of the sheet, is scanned at the point of sale. The bar code triggers the Catalina printer, housed at the POS, to produce a Web Buck certificate for the amount redeemed during the visit. This certificate is used toward the consumer's next shopping trip.

"We see the program benefiting us three ways: We are attracting new customers, rewarding our already loyal customers and reaching customers that do not rely on traditional coupons," said Laura McCafferty, a spokeswoman for ShopRite, a division of Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J.

While the electronic discounts are the same for all participating retailers, companies are already seeking ways to stand out among competitors.

"We created our own name for the program and are linking the promotions into our web site," said Michael Houser, vice president of marketing for Schultz Sav-O Stores, Sheboygan, Wis.

"As time passes, the Internet will become an important medium for our consumers' lifestyle," said Jack Binder, senior vice president of finance for Shopper's Food Warehouse, Lanham, Md. "Because we are involved on the ground floor of this project, we expect that as it grows and we continue to offer electronic discounts, we will distinguish ourselves to our customers."

Some retailers are considering a connection between the Internet discounts and their frequent-shopper programs. "Though it is not yet linked to our card program, we expect to join the two in 1998," said Houser.

Though none of the retailers would release specific results, they told SN they are receiving positive feedback about the program. "So far, results are moderately successful," said Grand Union's DePaolis. "There has been very little promotion so far and we expect to see the program accelerate as customers become more aware of it in the new year."

Other retailers participating in the program include Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., and its Food 4 Less division; several divisions of A&P, Montvale, N.J.; Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J.; the Detroit division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; Eagle Food Centers, Milan, Ill.; and the southern California division of Lucky Stores, a division of American Stores, Salt Lake City.

Kroger's Houston division; Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.; and Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., will reportedly join the program by January, according to the source.

As consumers continue to use the service, Catalina expects to see 11,000 stores come on-line with the program within one year. "Our focus is getting the word out to consumers on how to use this program through their computer to save money," the source said. "In addition to increasing our participating stores, we would like to see between 35 million and 40 million consumers using this service on a weekly basis."