Publix is quietly testing a new discount initiative for grocery shoppers that could thrill coupon clippers: Offering digital, paperless coupons that can be redeemed at the register the same way other chains use membership cards.
Publix is a long way from launching the system regionwide and may ultimately skip it altogether, but seeing such a major grocery explore the idea has the coupon industry buzzing.
The system would be all new for Lakeland-based Publix.
Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie and northern grocery stores such as Kroger and Wegmans use membership cards to offer discounts. And coupon publishers such as SmartSource have developed online coupon pages where shoppers can digitally "clip" coupons so the value immediately transfers to membership cards.
When customers reach the checkout and present their cards, the cash register automatically deducts the coupon value from the total — a paperless process.
But Publix does not use membership cards, so here's how its system may work:
Customers would go online to the coupon publisher SmartSource.com or Publix.com, log in with a new Publix ID or other membership code, then choose and digitally clip coupons.
SmartSource then would digitally credit the customer's account. When Publix shoppers reach the checkout, they would enter a phone number in the credit card swipe terminal, and the register would automatically deduct the coupon value from their total purchase.
The system would be especially convenient for customers who regularly go online for coupons anyway, and it would even work in real time when customers use their iPads or cellphones in the grocery store aisles, said Henri Lellouche, senior vice president of digital for News America Marketing, which publishes the SmartSource inserts in Sunday newspapers.
"We're just beginning to look at this with Publix, and will provide some coupon content to them," Lellouche said, adding that the system could launch in select Publix stores sometime this summer.
Product makers, coupon publishers and grocers cherish such new digital systems because they're more efficient, can be customized to individual shoppers and eliminate the costs of printing and distributing paper coupons.
Digital coupons can be tracked immediately and minimize coupon fraud because the customer data is specific, not subject to interpretation by individual cashiers.
Publix already has a partnership with Coupons.com that enables shoppers to go online and clip coupons virtually. But that system requires the shopper to print the coupons on paper and bring them to the store.
Officials with Publix confirmed the broad outlines of the project and issued a formal statement.
"Publix understands that coupons are very important to many of our customers and are gaining popularity every day," spokeswoman Shannon Patten said. "Therefore we are exploring options that will enable our customers to continue saving money while making it more convenient to do so."
Publix is testing a series of new coupon ideas "in a limited environment for a pre-determined timeframe," Patten said.
Still, there's no guarantee Publix will expand the initiative across all its 1,051 stores in Florida and four other southeastern states. At one point in the 1990s, Publix introduced a discount card called Publix Plus but didn't move the project forward.
With any new product or service, Publix normally takes a lengthy, deliberative approach.
For instance, Publix took years to research offering online grocery ordering and curbside pickup, then took more than a year to test the service in just three stores and ultimately ended the test because it wasn't meeting revenue goals.