I have already recounted in earlier columns my devotion and then disappointment with Borders Books when it started, then abruptly stopped, a program that sent member discounts both to my email inbox and my phone. Ideally, I want to be able to walk into a store, flip my phone and find and use the relevant coupons for my location.
We are getting there. While individual brands are maintaining direct relationships with consumers to drive coupons to the phone, the coupon aggregators are reviving the old Sunday circular model and weekly "Clipper" circular for the phone. Cellfire started the model years ago by trying to aggregate vendors like Hollywood Video and Sears into a single couponing app. When it started I was critical of a model that required users to access a downloadable app that contained a limited and seemingly arbitrary range of coupons. Deck distribution and vendor partnerships always seemed to be the chokepoints. But now that the open app marketplace has proliferated, that Sunday circular model makes more sense.
On the iPhone I have downloaded and played around with several coupon aggregators. Cellfire remains a disappointment to me for its narrow coverage of vendors and underwhelming interface. Basically the app sorts and saves offers, forwards to a friend, and tracks the number of times you use the coupon.
To be fair, Cellfire seems to be targeting the grocery store market, and many of its partners seem to be outside my area. There is a very cool aspect to the grocery model. Cellfire lets me save the offer to a Safeway member card so that it will show up at the register when my store card is swiped. This method is not as cumbersome as rifling through all of one's mobile coupons at checkout.
The well-publicized Yowza couponing app (A "Heroes" cast member is involved) has a cooler interface but also suffers from limited vendor involvement. I got three stores in my 15-mile radius (Pier 1, Sears and SportsAuthority). The listings are more attractive than Cellfire's, but the same functionality is here. I get a link to a map as well as direct-dial to the nearest store. However, it's all pretty basic stuff, and its utility is entirely contingent on the partnerships, which still seem sparse.
Coupon Sherpa tries to solve the problem of limited vendor cooperation by aggregating Internet coupons that are relevant to your area. So this app actually lists scores of local offerings from the Web. It does a fair job of geo-locating the relevant stores but it pops me over to the Safari Web browser to access the coupon. This is much less convenient than having the coupon in the app itself. All I can do is save the store for later reference. What I gain in coupon coverage I lose in usability and convenience.
I am not entirely sure how much of the MobiQpons catalog of vendors represent direct relationships and how many are scraped from Web offers, but the interface is more streamlined than most of the others in the category. It is easy to add vendors and specific offers to a favorites file. The coupons themselves come up in a dedicated browser, although they often seem too small or fuzzy to be scanned. In its FAQ, MobiQpons warns that some checkout people may not accept the coupons and you may need to email them to yourself and print them out. I will have to try it out on my local Borders checkout fellow because my old favorite reappears in this app.
The four mobilized coupon circulars I have tried are obviously flawed, either in coverage or ease of use. But even if they do overcome their limitations in interface and coverage, they all still risk invisibility on the deck. The coupon circular model for mobile couponing has inherent weaknesses. First, you have to drill through a number of vendors just as you did in the dead tree and ink circulars. And you need to remember the thing is available.
I am surprised that none of these iPhone apps is leveraging the alert system yet or being even more granular in their use of geo-location. Shouldn't I be able to get a store-specific alert when a new Borders coupon is there? Or shouldn't GPS know precisely what store I am in, so specific coupons float to the surface? And why aren't more of them integrating the map as an interface yet? It would seem that the local ratings and reviews services like Goodrec and Yelp already have a leg-up in this regard, and we are just waiting for a map-driven coupon app -- unless there is one in that 50,000-app mosh pit I missed. At some point Yahoo or Google or one of the directory providers has to tumble to the opportunity of overlaying store coupons on maps.
We will get there, I am sure. I can't quite tell yet how these services plan to differentiate themselves to the consumer or the marketer, however. Some apps are smoother than others, and no doubt there will be a land grab for partnerships.
But for now the category, several years into its evolution, still feels under-imagined and kludgy. There must be greater value-adds somewhere in this model for both ends of the chain, buyer and seller. Cellfire's integration with the savings card is a smart innovation. I am curious what other marketing and promotional services these vendors will start dreaming up.
Just consider the original model. Sunday circulars were occasions for advertising, not just coupon distribution. Placement, prominence, timing to sales and seasonal events -- all helped drive the experience. Rudimentary as it is now, I am sure that coupon aggregators will catch up with the real-world analog that informs them.