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Texting 1,2,3

The dexterity with which some folks text message gives new meaning to the term all thumbs. Many hone their skills while keeping in constant contact with family and friends. But personal acquaintances aren't the only ones who've got the demographic's number. Food retailers are likewise finding a captive audience with shoppers who opt into their mobile messaging programs. 7-Eleven, Food Lion, K-VA-T

The dexterity with which some folks text message gives new meaning to the term “all thumbs.”

Many hone their skills while keeping in constant contact with family and friends. But personal acquaintances aren't the only ones who've got the demographic's number.

Food retailers are likewise finding a captive audience with shoppers who opt into their mobile messaging programs.

7-Eleven, Food Lion, K-VA-T and Bashas' have recently tapped into consumers' cell phones with messages containing exclusive offers. Cheaper than direct-mail, discounts distributed via text are redeemed up to five times more frequently than paper coupons, according to Mike Romano, co-founder of mobile marketing service provider SmartReply, Irvine, Calif.

Millennial shoppers, or those 20 to 30 years old, were the target of a pilot conducted by 7-Eleven, Dallas, in the San Diego market.

The c-store chain advertises to the demographic in their cars, at the movies and at sporting events, so it made sense to reach them via their mobile device.

“They are one of our key target age groups who are never without their phones,” spokeswoman Margaret Chabris told SN. “We wanted to see how they liked receiving messages from 7-Eleven.”

Throughout November bilingual signs in about 200 stores invited shoppers to text the word “FAST” to 72579 for free “stuff.” They received a reply text message explaining that they could choose one of four proprietary beverages for free. Participants redeemed offers for a Slurpee frozen carbonated beverage, Big Gulp fountain drink, fresh-brewed hot coffee or 7-Eleven's new iced coffee, in one of two ways. Those who had Internet access through their wireless device could click through to a screen displaying a UPC barcode. These shoppers handed the phone to the cashier for scanning at checkout.

To help maximize scanning accuracy, 7-Eleven leveraged a proprietary UPC bar code technology that takes into account the specific size and shape of the consumer's phone. The technology ensured seamless shopper transactions.

“We didn't have any hiccups,” said Chabris.

Participants without Internet access showed the message to the 7-Eleven clerk, who entered a numeric code on the cash register.

Messages also included an invitation to receive future texts from 7-Eleven about news and offers. Recipients opted in by texting “YES.”

“Several thousands” of 7-Eleven shoppers took part in the program throughout its two-month run, but membership really spiked in December when prompts to join were also circulated via paid media, said Chabris, who could not provide specific numbers about participants or redemption rates.

Billboards targeting both general-population and Hispanic consumers were positioned roadside and in bus stops, train stations and other places where people stand idle. Thirty-second spots were aired on both English and Spanish-speaking radio stations.

7-Eleven chose San Diego in particular not just because of its “somewhat-isolated media market” but also since it has a large Hispanic population.

“We wanted to see how this demographic responded to the program,” said Chabris.

In the weeks since its conclusion, 7-Eleven has been analyzing results to determine how best to leverage its new database of cell phone numbers.

“We'll determine if we want to test this in other markets, if we want to do a slightly different test or try this with other types of coupons,” Chabris said.

Mobile programs are making more sense since cell phone users text more often than talk on their phones.

During the third quarter of 2009, the average cell phone user sent and received 548 text messages compared with 183 phone calls, according to Nielsen, New York.

What's more is that supermarkets' target demographic, woman with children, text message more frequently than the average adult.

Close to seven in 10 moms (69.8%) use cell phones, as opposed to 58.2% of average adults. More than four in 10 moms (41%) text message compared with 27.3% of adults, according to the All About Moms survey conducted by BIGresearch, Columbus, Ohio, for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, Washington.

The popularity of text messaging is giving way to a whole new means for building relationships with shoppers.

“It opens a completely new way to communicate that allows for more back and forth and the opportunity to keep your customers much happier,” observed Mike Gatti, executive director of RAMA.

Texting programs are also gaining momentum since they allow supermarkets to distribute offers in real time.

“They can be delivered to meet specific customer needs, inventory events, calendar events or last-minute opportunities,” said SmartReply's Romano.

He suggests that now is the time to get started with mobile clubs since consumers will likely only accept invitations from one or two marketers.

“There is only so much room on people's cell phones for grocery brands,” Romano said.

Food Lion and K-VA-T recently lured shoppers to join their respective programs, not with free products, but with entry into a sweepstakes.

Food City shoppers who join Abingdon, Va.-based K-VA-T Food Stores' new “Connect to FC” club are automatically entered to win a $100 Food City gift card. Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., shoppers who texted “HOLIDAY” to 467467 during its December mobile club test were eligible to win a holiday dinner worth $50.

Last week Food Lion drummed up additional buzz for its program when it announced that shoppers could text BIGGAME to 467467 for Super Bowl savings.

From Jan. 27 to Feb. 3, shoppers can obtain a free bottle of Canada Dry or 7-Up, 2-liter; $1 off Tyson's Any'tizers; $1 off DiGiorno Pizza, 12-inch; and 40 cents off Pringles, when they use their MVP card.

The offer is unique in that shoppers must provide their loyalty card number so that discounts can be automatically loaded to their MVP card. Those who don't have an MVP card are invited to sign up via text to receive one in the mail.

Linking a shopper's cell phone number to their loyalty card also allows retailers to target specific consumers with relevant offers rather than take a one-size-fits-all type approach, noted Gatti.

Food Lion and K-VA-T both replied to initial text messages from shoppers by asking if they'd like to continue receiving offers and other information via text.

K-VA-T lets potential members know that if they choose to join they'll receive a maximum of five text messages per week.

The retailer is wise to set expectations up front, said Gatti, especially since, as with all things personal, customers can be leery. By putting the ball in the shopper's court, marketers can gauge their level of tolerance and proceed accordingly.

“You can't just run blindly into this,” he warned.

If the shopper indicates further contact isn't OK, the retailer must be diligent about honoring their wishes. There will be little forgiveness for those who slip up and send offers to them by mistake, shows the All About Moms survey.

It found that 66.5% of moms feel it's an invasion of privacy when retailers text them.

Retailers are aware that too many text messages are considered annoying, so many are proceeding with caution — even when it comes to shoppers who've already opted in.

Each message sent by K-VA-T reminds shoppers that they can opt out at any time by texting “STOP.”

Shoppers were reminded of this in the most recent message sent to promote Food City's “Big 3-Day Sale.” Texting “HELP” is another option.

Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., took a different route with a mobile marketing pilot it conducted last summer.

During its eight-week test, shoppers in the Phoenix metro area received offers for a free item that could be obtained when at least $10 was spent in the store. Up to 10,000 shoppers could redeem each offer and deals expired a day or so after the text was sent.

Free items included two Pepsi, 2-liter; Dole Salad, 12-ounce; and Nature's Own Bread, 20-ounce. The test was well-received by shoppers.

“The campaign generated a highly motivated database of customers, strong redemption rates and a solid return on investment,” spokeswoman Kristy Nied told SN in September.

The chain sent four more text messages to shoppers in October, but none since.