An Akron software developer has created a smartphone app that he hopes will revolutionize the way shoppers use coupons.
It has taken 11 years for Jim Wilson of Insight Market Data to bring his idea to fruition. He hopes to continue to build upon it for improvements and with more capital investments.
The Ringside Shopper, a free app available for iPhones and Android phones, allows shoppers to scan the barcode of a product. If a coupon is available for that item, it would be customized and appear on the smartphone. Additionally, customized coupons from competing brands in that same category, such as chips, also would appear to try to entice the shopper to buy that product instead.
The Ringside Shopper name refers to the fact “we’re giving you a front-row seat for manufacturers to fight over you,” Wilson said. While there are several companies offering mobile coupons, Wilson said, “No one is doing anything like this.”
It’s a bit like swimming upstream in a world accustomed to clipped newspaper coupons, mobile coupons and grocery store loyalty cards.
“But it’s coming,” he said.
“I filed the patent for this in 2002, and it was issued in 2009,” said Wilson, who came up with the idea when his ex-wife was looking for diaper coupons for their daughter, who is now 14.
“I thought. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to stand in the store and scan for coupons?’ ” Wilson said. “I’ve been waiting for technology to catch up and waiting around for smartphones to show up.
“It makes it much more fun for the shopper. It’s like a scratch-off lottery ticket,” he said.
For now, the app is being piloted at an independently owned IGA store in LaGrange, about an hour’s drive from Akron in Lorain County. Wilson said he worked with the cash-register vendor for several IGA stores and chose LaGrange for his launch. He has interest from other stores and hopes to expand.
The big break, of course, would be if Ringside Shopper can punch its way into larger grocery chains or national big-box retailers. For now, finances limit Wilson. He has landed a few investors and is using his own funds to offer the coupons at the IGA store during his pilot.
The Lorain County Community Innovation Fund supported the company early on with some grant money and helped conduct a trial of the prototype system.
Wilson said the app will let manufacturers know how brand-loyal a shopper is versus price-sensitive. Or, possibly more important, at what price point or discount savings a shopper is willing to break their loyalty to try a competitor.
With paper coupons, manufacturers are just “throwing them out to the whole countryside. They don’t know who is using them. This [app] gives them a chance to target” specific shoppers, Wilson said.
While Ringside Shopper’s benefit to consumers is to yield savings on the purchase, the data that Wilson’s company will collect from what people buy is the potentially lucrative part for him.
“This is like a real-time survey of which item you picked up and decided to buy. You put your money where your mouth is,” he said. “This is shopper behavior at a granular level of data that no one has. I will know to a nickel what your favorite product is and [at] what price you are willing to buy it.
“You can’t find data on what it will cost to get people to buy your product,” he said.
Wilson said he’s very sensitive about the coveted data he’s looking to collect and people’s need for privacy. The only demographic data Wilson asks in his app are a person’s year of birth, ZIP code, gender and level of education completed.
Depending on what’s purchased, Wilson said he can make some conclusions.
“If you buy diapers, you’ve got a kid,” he said.
Similarly, Wilson said, he’s not interested in his app bothering people while they are shopping.
“It will not badger you as you go along the aisle,” he said, referring to technology that can send messages to your smartphone when you pass certain items.
Eventually, Wilson would like to design the app to help shoppers create a list of things they buy regularly and automatically populate the list with the coupons available.
Wilson hopes to make money on the app by charging manufacturers a small percentage of the value of the coupons, as well as selling the data collected. He has spoken to a few local manufacturers of regional brands, who have shown some interest.
“I’ve got a chicken-and-egg challenge. Shoppers won’t use it if manufacturers aren’t offering coupons, and manufacturers won’t offer coupons if there are no customers,” he said.
Eager partner at IGA
For now, Wilson said he’s targeting the smaller mom-and-pop stores because they are excited to have something to differentiate themselves from their big-box competitors.
Shoppers, especially ones with kids, are using the app, said Erika Stanley, store manager at the LaGrange IGA.
“People either love it or they are scared of it,” she said. The store has three loaner smartphones for people who don’t have one to use, and Stanley also has walked around with some shoppers, including senior citizens, helping them learn how to use the app.
“The nice thing is there’s not a lot to it,” Wilson said.
Once the phone scans the barcode, a coupon good for 120 minutes (which gives a sense of urgency) is stored in the phone. When the shopper gets to the register and scans another barcode, the register automatically takes the savings off the phone.
“To be fair, [the LaGrange IGA] may not be the best store to test this in because of demographics, but if we can use it here, we can do it anywhere,” Wilson said.
When asked about the Ringside Shopper and the concept, Jim Trout, Acme Fresh Market’s executive vice president, said: “Everybody is seeking the best way to approach a consumer. Acme is doing the same thing. I think this gentleman has figured a method he wants to use.”
Wilson’s challenge will be to get the manufacturer support, Trout said.
“His challenge will be how does he solicit the manufacturers to buy into his program? It’s innovative, but there’s certainly other applications out there that will accomplish that,” Trout said.
Acme is evaluating two software applications that will increase the store’s mobile marketing to its customers, he said.
“Ringside is very simple for shoppers to use,” said Pamela Grimm, chair of the Marketing and Entrepreneurship program at Kent State University, which is helping Wilson with data mining and analytics support. “It captures incredibly precise information about shopper behavior and their individual preferences, all while maintaining the shopper’s anonymity.”
Wilson also received systems work for the app from Cleveland’s Lean Dog Software Studio.
Still, he acknowledges his app isn’t for everyone.
“It’s totally up to the shopper. You are letting the manufacturer know, ‘I am open to this conversation.’ ”
Wilson, a computer programmer by trade, is hoping he can stay in his native Ohio and find investors for his idea.
“If this thing could be a fraction of what I think it could be, why not here?
“This is a very big idea,” he said. “If we get investors, I think this could be huge with the way it changes the game.”