Commentary

Cellfire's Great Mobile Coupon Caper

Wednesday was coupon-hunting day in my grandparents' home. They went at it with the cunning usually reserved for sting operations.

Grandpa was up early to secure 10 copies of the Wednesday newspaper, the one with all the "best coupons." The two spent the morning on either end of the kitchen table, armed with pairs of heavy iron scissors asking whether they needed this or that. They didn't want for anything at this point in their lives, of course. Both passed long ago, but our family still hasn't depleted all the Woodsy Pine air freshener they bought during this era. It was all sport.

With stacks of coupons secured by noon, Grandpa would drag me along to complete the caper. We were violating blatantly and unrepentantly the "limit, one per customer" rule, so this had to be orchestrated when we were hidden deeply within Aisle 5. He took one gallon of Tide and a coupon, gave me another set with some cash, and we waited on line behind one another as if we were strangers. You never knew when Procter & Gamble's coupon security squad might strike. This was Grandpa's "Ocean's Eleven" moment.

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I think Norman Fell was in the parking lot distracting the cart boys. Joey Bishop was fumbling on a phone pole somewhere ready to bring down the Northern New Jersey power grid if it looked like the police were being called in.

Cellfire is the kind of mobile savings tool my grandparents would have loved because they were dedicated couponers. I have been covering this company for a number of years now, since it was among the first to release a standalone application in the category back in 2005. Like a phone-based weekly circular or snail mail ValuePack, the applications sits on your phone and maintains coupons from partnered vendors in your general area. Hollywood Video and 1-800-Flowers have been longtime partners, but the company has expanded its reach to include Sears, SuperCuts, McDonalds and scores more.

The Cellfire 3.0 version, which the company announces tomorrow, is very powerful, if you're a dedicated couponer. The application works in tandem with the Web site to let you browser offers in your area from a full directory and save them where they are easily accessible for redeeming in-store. The Web and phone work seamlessly. You can use the Web to discover new offers in the system and push them to your saved coupon area on the phone, and vice versa. A Clip 2 Mobile feature now lets marketing partners sign new customers up to Cellfire with a keyword sent to a short code. The company says it can target one-to-one offers to existing customers as well.

The application is a lot like a mailed pack of coupons. There may or may not be an offer that corresponds to your immediate needs or tastes. For obsessive savers, the coupons are likely to change some buying habits, or get them to test a new brand. They have a redemption rate of 5%, which is multiples higher than paper coupon redemption rates, they say. For people like me, the absence of Borders, Blockbuster, Starbucks, Shop-Rite or GameStop coupons (my haunts) means the application is meaningless. But I am not a shopper.

Maybe I was traumatized by Grandpa's relentless A&P stings, but I never go out of my way to use a coupon just to get the savings. I am not the right audience for this. Cellfire says the overwhelming majority of its users are in the 18-to-34 demo, so there is a lot of potential to get those older super savers.

But finding the right audience is the challenge. Typically, Cellfire has been leveraging in-store presence among the partners to market the service, and one of the real hurdles is sheer discovery. The company has about half a million users and signs up about 1,000 a day. The company points to research showing that mobile users are much more interested in mobile coupons than just about any other kind of mobile marketing or advertising. Given that point, however, and the fact that the company has been doing this for three years on a platform with 230 million potential customers, half a million users still doesn't sound like much.

The technology is sound and highly usable. You can filter offers in the phone catalog, and the offers are starting to embrace enough retailers to make it worthwhile to couponers. I was a bit confused by the Clip 2 Mobile feature. Even with Cellfire installed on the phone, the SMS keyword combo simply sent me a link and invitation to download the application again. Ideally, you want the system to recognize that Cellfire is present at that mobile number and send your installed app the coupon.

Having lived in a home of couponers, I know there are people for whom a dedicated coupon application makes sense. As with all other things mobile, the ideal world is one in which a single standard lets you send any offer from print, poster, or TV to your phone in the form of a usable coupon. Right now, that standard system is SMS, and it works for me and my Borders coupons. I am still not sure if a coupon aggregator like this works more for the consumer or for the marketer, who gets better tracking and cross-promotional opportunities.

If my grandparents were alive today, perhaps Wednesdays would be Cellfire days, when they anticipate new offers showing up on their devices. Maybe I would have gotten a free phone out of the deal, just so they could drag me to the A&P again.

I still think the old way was better. Peter Lawford needed the work, and he told great Kennedy stories as we slipped away in the laundry van with all of us cackling over the caper.

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