RALPHS WILL TEST SECURE COUPONING ON INTERNET

GREENWICH, Conn. -- Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., will participate in a beta test of a system to make coupons available via the Internet while avoiding coupon fraud, beginning Aug. 27 in San Diego.The secure Internet coupon process, from SuperMarkets Online here, the Internet division of Catalina Marketing Corp., St. Petersburg, Fla., will be offered Oct. 1 to all retailers who have the company's

GREENWICH, Conn. -- Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., will participate in a beta test of a system to make coupons available via the Internet while avoiding coupon fraud, beginning Aug. 27 in San Diego.

The secure Internet coupon process, from SuperMarkets Online here, the Internet division of Catalina Marketing Corp., St. Petersburg, Fla., will be offered Oct. 1 to all retailers who have the company's checkout coupon system, currently in 11,000 U.S. supermarkets.

"One of our goals is to have 75% of our retailer affiliates -- which total 129 U.S. chains -- signed up by the launch date," Will Gardenswartz, vice president of marketing/business development at SuperMarkets Online, told SN in an interview.

This secure coupon process places a "savings ID ticket," rather than an actual coupon, on a web site. A recent yearlong test in California of Internet-available coupons raised concerns they could be easily copied or have their values changed, Gardenswartz said.

By Oct. 1, SuperMarkets Online plans to have 25 to 30 product categories represented, said Gardenswartz, with manufacturers being offered category exclusivity. Offers will be changed once a week. For their participation, manufacturers will be charged a minimum weekly fee, as well as 9 cents per print for each in-store coupon issued, he added.

If the secure coupon process proves successful, Gardenswartz envisions sending the savings tickets to consumers' e-mail addresses on a regular basis, rather than having them search the Internet. Another long-term goal would be surveying customers about their brand preferences. This aggregated information would be valuable to manufacturers, noted Gardenswartz.

After printing the scannable savings ticket on a home computer, the consumer presents the ticket, along with the featured item, at the point of sale. Once the item and the ticket are scanned, a coupon is produced by the in-store Catalina Marketing Network printer, and given to the consumer for a discount to be applied on the next trip to the store.

Use of the Internet as a conduit to consumers is growing in importance among supermarket retailers.

"We know that more and more customers are using the Internet," said Kay Garbizo, vice president of advertising for Ralphs, in a prepared statement. "It's a new medium we need to embrace."

"The issue of secure coupons across the Internet is very important," said Mike Schultz, senior vice-president at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif.

During the beta test, the savings tickets will be available on the SuperMarkets Online web site, located at www.supermarkets.com. Consumers accessing the site can learn participating retailer locations by typing in their zip codes, said Gardenswartz.

When the program launches nationally, SuperMarkets Online will make the secure coupon system available to both retailer and manufacturer web sites.