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Using Internet Coupons to Grow Online and Off

The Wall Street Journal, Sarah E. Neddleman 2006

Whether your business is online, off or both, Internet coupons can be a simple, low-cost way to draw sales from a wide audience, as entrepreneur Jacques Stambouli has learned. The co-founder and president of Via Trading Corp. says that since offering Web coupons, he’s been able to track the sales they generate because each has a unique code. His four-year old venture, which sells surplus goods from about a dozen major retail chains, first measured the benefits in November in 2004. Its storefront was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday for four days, so Mr. Stambouli sent out an email with a coupon for 10% off purchases through the Web site. The company received 75 orders — all of which used the coupons — compared to 25 during the same period the year before, when no coupons were offered, Mr. Stambouli says.

Mr. Stambouli says he thinks the coupons clearly helped boost revenue. Annual sales were about $4 million in 2004, up from $2 million the year before, says Mr. Stambouli, who partners with his brother, Alain. Sales reached $6.6 million in 2005, and he anticipates hitting the $11 million mark by the end of 2006. The company also spends about $225,000 a year advertising in print and online. Mr. Stambouli, 33 years old, says he dreamt up the idea for his company in 2002 for a class at Harvard Business School in Boston where he earned an M.B.A. Its customers are mainly small retail concerns, such as thrift and discount shops. Others include flea-market vendors, online retailers and independent sales pros such as eBay sellers, he says.

Most sales are made over the Web, but the company also benefits from foot traffic at its Los Angeles storefront, which is also its warehouse, says Mr. Stambouli. Shoppers can bring in printed copies of online coupons to get discounts on purchases. The online coupons help in-store sales, he says, though to a lesser extent than they do Internet sales. Mr. Stambouli says he was inspired to use Internet coupons when business surged after he inserted print coupons in ads he’d taken out in trade magazines. “The success of the offline experience definitely pushed us to transfer that to our online campaigns,” he says.

Here are his tips:

  • Include an expiration date. Coupons — whether online or off — should have a deadline to encourage shoppers to take advantage, says Mr. Stambouli. “You’re telling people this is something out of the ordinary,” he explains. “If there are no time restraints, all you have done is decreased your price.”
  • Insert catchy sales terms. For example, the word “free” helps grab readers’ attention, says Mr. Stambouli. Also, include the word “coupon” in the subject line of coupons sent via email to try to signal to customers that they’re not ads or spam.
  • Require a code. By instructing buyers to enter a number or word on their online orders, or show it to sales clerks when shopping in person, Mr. Stambouli says you can keep track of discounted purchases.
  • Use email. Coupons are most effective in emails because they give the recipient a sense of personal attention, says Mr. Stambouli. But one downside is that you may need to pay for help in distributing them. At first, he says he emailed coupons on his own for free, but the number of subscribers grew so large, his computer began to frequently crash. Today he pays a small technology firm about $1,500 a year to email coupons to more than 18,000 subscribers as many times as needed, he says. They go out on average once a month and generally are tied to a theme, such as a holiday, says Mr. Stambouli.
  • Post on related Web sites. Mr. Stambouli says he also occasionally includes coupons in the ads he posts on wholesale-industry Web sites, such as Wholesalecentral.com. He continues to insert them in ads in print publications, as well.

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