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Flyers. An app for that?

The greatest sales tool ever for supermarkets is getting a mobile makeover

Mobile-Flyer Flo-1012

After a long day at work a young woman steps on a bus in downtown Toronto, tossing dinner ideas around in her mind.

Halfway home and still wating, she decides to draw inspiration from a flyer. She pulls out her iPhone, and with a few taps on the screen, has all the nearby supermarkets’ deals at her fingertips.

Has the future of the flyer arrived? Yes, according to two Canadian companies determined to give this lowtech form of advertising a mobile makeover.

FlyerFlo and Reebee recently launched smartphone applications that aggregate retailers’ flyers, allowing shoppers to browse promotions any time, anywhere. Developers say the software meets a consumer demand and provides retailers who pay for the service with invaluable metrics.

But some experts aren’t jumping on the flyer-app bandwagon. They argue the technology doesn’t yet offer grocers much added value.

Flyers aren’t just important to grocers’ sales; they play a meaningful role in just about every Canadian’s life.

“It’s become almost an anticipated part of a weekly ritual,” explains Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

A recent survey by Nielsen confirms his observation. It found that 77 per cent of Canadians read store flyers weekly, and more than half base their shopping lists off items they find in those pages.

E- flyers, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as popular. Only six per cent of Canadians use them, according to a 2011 KubasPrimedia poll.

Despite the popularity of the traditional flyer, two startups are working hard to carve out a new ad market on mobile devices. FlyerFlo, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based company, launched its eponymous app in August.

“Flyers work. They help drive sales,” says co-founder Mark Hopson. “But retailers don’t know how much [business] is coming from flyers, so it’s a guessing game.” 

The company’s app, which is free for consumers, works like this: Users download the software from Apple’s App store and type in their postal code.

Rows of flyers, which are exact copies of the printed versions, then appear across their iPhone or iPad screens.  They tap the image of a flyer to expand it, swipe to change pages and pinch to zoom into a product.

It’s user-friendly, and according to Hopson, collects important market data. Grocers can learn how many people opened their flyers, which pages were most popular, how long readers spent on each page and at what point they left.

Hopson says the software also has the potential to collect information on where users are zooming in, and what products they might be looking at.

Among FlyerFlo’s clients is Mississauga, Ont.-based Starsky Fine Foods. The independent grocer signed up for the service this fall hoping the app would appeal to existing customers and broaden its clientele.

“Market trends are changing day to day and we are trying to stay focused on today’s fads,” says store manager, Espedito Ariganello. He notes that while the technology is cost effective, environmentally friendly and easy to rush to market, it has its drawbacks.

“This form of media is at its infant stage,” Ariganello says. “We are uncertain how many of our clients use this form of media, and its impact on a community outreach is yet to be proven.”

Reebee, another flyer app startup, says its application can help grocers determine how they are doing relative to their competition.

Launched in October, the app shares similar features to FlyerFlo. The main difference is that Reebee can use GPS to locate users and its design mimics Apple Newsstand. Flyers on Reebee range from No Frills and T&T Supermarket to Staples and Home Hardware.

“We can tell retailers how they rank compared to others in terms of page views and other numbers,” says co-founder Tobiasz Dankiewicz.

Such metrics can certainly be valuable. But Wong, the marketing professor, isn’t fond of the cut-and-paste design of flyer apps.

“If all you’re doing is digitizing your existing flyer, there is no competitive advantage,” he says. “All you have is an additional cost on top of the printed flyer.”

Worse, Wong argues the apps aren’t as user-friendly as the traditional print flyer. Small smartphone and iPad displays make the pages “cumbersome” to navigate: readers have to use their fingers to move around the page and zoom in to make the text legible. It’s extra effort, he says, and it might discourage consumers from browsing a flyer.

Besides, a large number of Canadians are devoted fans of the paper flyer, says Tammy Smitham, vice-president of communications at Shoppers Drug Mart. “Whenever there happens to be somebody who misses their flyer one week, we hear about it,” she says with a laugh. 

The drugstore chain chose not to sign up with a mobile app. Smitham says her company’s existing ad vehicles provide all the consumer traffc and metrics required.

For instance, Shoppers Drug Mart’s e- flyer gets between 250,000 and 500,000 page views every month and generates data showing which product categories are most popular, what time of day people are viewing the flyer and what products are drawing readers’ attention.

Though Smitham says Shoppers isn’t ruling out a flyer app in the future, “the value-add isn’t there right now. ” 

That’s not to say flyer apps don’t have a bright future. They do, for two reasons: First, smartphone adoption is only now starting to hit a tipping point. As of June 2012, 54 per cent of Canadians owned an iPhone, BlackBerry or other smartphone, according to figures from media metrics firm comScore. That’s up from 40 per cent last fall. 

The other reason: sooner or later flyer apps will evolve into something more than just a digital version of a paper flyer.

“The real trick here is to use the flyer as a portal to a much richer customer experience,” Wong suggests.

For instance, he says, flyer apps could direct consumers to recipes, videos or special coupons. Wong envisions the flyer app of the future being one that’s set up like Pinterest, the suddenly popular social media site in which users post photos of things they like.

In fact, FlyerFlo’s Hopson says Pinterest was the inspiration of his app’s original design. Products were organized into individual sticky-note-sized blocks. Someone clicking on an item would be sent to another page where a Twitter feed and videos could be displayed alongside product price and details.

Hopson says he showed the design to several retailers and says they were clearly impressed. “But it came down to the fact that it’s a lot of work for them to do this new thing, and they questioned the added value,” he says.

With apps and smartphones now a fact of everyday life, that added value may soon become obvious to all.

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