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The Hard Cell

With more than 80 percent of Americans saying they "never leave home without them," cell phones are becoming ideal mechanisms for engaging consumers with targeted text messages, special offers and surveys.

With more than 80 percent of Americans saying they "never leave home without them," cell phones are becoming ideal mechanisms for engaging consumers with targeted text messages, special offers and surveys.

"This sheer volume [of cell phone owners], coupled with enormous marketing potential that is just starting to be realized, means marketers need to understand as much as possible about how people use their phones, how they feel about them -- and what more they want from them," said Steve Garton, head of media for global research firm Synovate, Chicago, which surveyed 8,000 urban mobile phone owners last year in 11 markets worldwide.

Of those surveyed, Americans were among the most likely to own at least two cell phones (33 percent of respondents). More than one-fourth of the U.S. respondents said they use their phones for e-mailing; a similar number use them to browse the Internet; and a solid 15 percent said they access social networks via their mobile phones.

Four-store ShortStop of Boulder, Colo., which offers its proprietary gift cards as a mobile payment option through a standalone Verifone terminal, is launching a mobile loyalty program.

The small chain allows customers to accumulate reward points and receive promotional messages via text. "We can offer loyal customers specific promotions or let them know, for instance, when gasoline prices are going to rise and urge them to come in before that happens," said co-owner Jeff Dageenakis. "We won't bombard people with texts because I know I wouldn't like that."

Dageenakis has a point. In December, a woman sued Burger King for $5 million for repeatedly texting her "cryptic" messages, despite her texting the company to stop.

Still, ShortStop's loyalty program will be offered only as a mobile-only application for the first few months, then made available via plastic card. To boost the chain's mobile payment option, customers who pay through a mobile gift card will earn double loyalty points, Dageenakis said.

The retailer is hoping to migrate both the payment and loyalty programs to a near-field-communication platform in the future.

In another mobile marketing campaign, Rutter's Farm Stores is inviting customers to sign up for promotional text messages on the chain's Web site. The York, Pa.-based retailer also unveiled anew iPhone application that updates gasoline prices and lets users know the closest location's price. The app allows customers to find the closest Rutter's store based on city and state or zip code, as well as get directions from their current location.

Customers can tap into real-time gasoline price information and find a station with a particular fuel type, such as diesel or kerosene, or locate the nearest 24-hour Rutter's Deli or store with free Wi-Fi. The iPhone application also identifies which locations have car washes.

Users of the app receive exclusive promotions, and iPhone users may sign up to receive instant alerts about special promotions and deals via iPhone push notifications.

Such mobile marketing applications can have an immediate impact on sales, industry watchers say. One reason: Consumers tend to classify the mobile phone differently than mainstream media such as television, radio, print, outdoor or even the Internet, according to the Synovate survey. "Most people do not think of phones as a media platform at all," Garton said.

Last December, some 200 7-Eleven stores in San Diego tested a campaign that encouraged customers to text the word "FAST" or "RAPIDO" to "72579" to receive up to one free Slurpee, Big Gulp, coffee or iced coffee per day at participating 7-Eleven stores.

To redeem the offer, text message recipients with Internet access on their phones were able to click through to a screen displaying a UPC bar code that could be scanned at the cash register. In other cases, 7-Eleven sales associates entered a numeric code at the cash register. Consumers also were able to opt-in to future texts with 7-Eleven news and offers.

"7-Eleven appeals to customers who are busy and on the go," said Rita Bargerhuff, 7-Eleven's vice president and chief marketing officer. "Our marketing programs try to reach them where they are -- by radio and outdoor when they're in the car, at movies and sporting events, or online at Facebook, Twitter and Mobile marketing is the next step to reach our target customers -- the Millennials who don't go anywhere without their phones."

Jeff Morris, CEO of Alon USA, operator of 7-Eleven franchisee Southwest Convenience Stores, recently told Convenience Store News that one of the chain's most successful promotions centered on a large billboard message that offered a coupon to mobile customers who responded to a text number. "Within hours, we had thousands of people sign up to get the promo coupon sent to their phone," Morris said. The chain kept participating customer data and sends a text message with a new coupon to their phones once a week.

Mobile couponing will triple globally by 2014, according to a new study by Juniper Research called "Mobile Coupons & NFC (Near Field Communication) Smart Posters: Strategies, Applications & Forecasts 2009-2014." The research showed there will be more than 300 million users of mobile coupons within the next five years.

As more and more people acquire smart phones, users want to exploit the improved capabilities of their devices with new features and services, especially when it means saving money, the study noted. However, some users may be reluctant to share their mobile number, fearing spam and fake coupons.

Earlier this year, 7-Eleven Sweden launched an iPhone application that combined a store locator with coupons for free coffee and biscotti. Now, the country's 7-Eleven operation conducts surveys via mobile phone.

The 7-Eleven iPhone application also displays the latest promotion from a participating manufacturer -- for example a free pack of a newly introduced gum product. Customers who enter their mobile phone numbers get a mobile coupon redeemable at the nearest 7-Eleven convenience store. Upon redeeming that coupon, consumers are sent a mini survey to their phone.

Until NFC-enabled phones are ubiquitous and/or more retailers are able to redeem dynamic mobile barcodes or integrate promotional codes into the point of sale, offers will have to be printed out at home, said Andrew Datars, vice president of product management with Empathica, a customer-loyalty firm based in Alpharetta, Ga.

In a related strategy, casual dining operator Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc. had a positive experience using Empathica's SMS-Text Survey to poll customers at its Old Chicago restaurants. Last year, customers in 99 Old Chicago locations were asked to text their e-mail addresses and then answer a Web survey for a chance to win a prize. In 20 days, more than 12,500 customers responded with their e-mail addresses. Those customers were sent an e-mail message with a link to a standard Web-based customer experience survey; more than 2,000 of which were completed.

"[The] program provided us with not only a way to increase our online guest experience survey completions, but also with an instant feedback network that gave us insight into our guests' opinions," said Gretchen Paules, vice president of marketing. "The tool also delivered a solid, cost-effective acquisition platform for our e-mail programs."
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