7-Eleven’s Mobile Coupon Trial Improves Scan Accuracy, Raises Marketing Ethics Questions

Written by Evan Schuman
December 17th, 2009

Still in its infancy, the mobile coupon is struggling to prove its value to retail. But these coupons have found a powerful ally in the $54 billion, 37,100-store 7-Eleven chain. The global convenience merchant is most of the way through a two-month trial of mobile coupons in some 200 7-Elevens in San Diego, with company officials preparing to extend the trial.

The chain has thus far avoided some of the read-rate accuracy problems that have plagued other trials (A&P last month swore off scanning directly from cell phone screens due to concerns about inaccuracies), pointing to an approach that determines the make, model and carrier of a phone before trying to scan. It then adjusts the scan parameters to be the most effective for that particular device.

But 7-Eleven is also running smack into the delicate ethics issues around mobile marketing, where chains need to collect phone numbers and E-mail addresses to begin. In this case, for example, many of the consumers being targeted are children, officially as young as 16 and potentially as young as 14. Those youngsters are mixed with a target group of young adults, as old as 24.

Given that the trial doesn’t ask age—something typically seen with age-restricted beverages, such as beer, and certainly not with Slurpees and Big Gulps—there’s no way to differentiate the phone numbers that come from children as opposed to adults. Is a retailer courting perception trouble when it offers free sodas to try and get under-age customers to give up their phone numbers? Without knowing ages, does this force the chain to treat all of the participants with—please forgive me—kid gloves? That approach certainly seems safer than assuming they are all adults and risking parental wrath for marketing to a 14 year-old.

The chain has outsourced many of the trial’s logistics to a mobile marketing firm called GMR Marketing. TJ Person is a senior vice president at GMR and in charge of the 7-Eleven trial. Asked about the difficulties of a campaign that includes underage consumers, Person said that the opt-in covers the company. “When we ask for an opt-in, we assume they’re more than 13.”

The trial began November 1 and is slated to end on December 31, 2009. Daniel May, the 7-Eleven marketing manager in charge of the trial, said the results thus far—which he wouldn’t quantify—have been good and that the chain is “possibly expanding this, going somewhere else next year,” referring to launching a new trial outside of the San Diego area.

But May stressed that this trial was done as a strong opt-in campaign, which should minimize later complaints of unsolicited ads. The consumer must initiate the trial by texting a message–“FAST”–to 72579. Consumers are then told that they’ve been granted a free beverage (Slurpee, Big Gulp or coffee).

Once the consumer shows up at the convenience store, that person is offered two ways to redeem the chosen beverage.


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