Staples spiffs up its online rebate system

Rebates may help customers decide to buy one product over another, but the hassle of clipping the proofs of purchase, filling out the forms, and mailing the materials to the manufacturers can leave shoppers frustrated. To gain sales and goodwill, office supplies giant Staples recently introduced Easy Rebates, a system that enables customers to submit their manufacturer-rebate requests online.

According to Jim Sherlock, director of sales and merchandising for Framingham, MA-based Staples, customers need to enter only two key data points — the rebate offer number and an Easy Rebates ID number — plus personal information to submit their rebates online. He says that “thousands of customers” a day have been submitting their rebate claims electronically since Staples launched the service on Oct. 31.

Easy Rebates grew out of comments made by focus groups in December 2003 and January 2004. “By far, of all the different elements that we asked them about, rebates got the most emotional response,” Sherlock says. “They told us loud and clear, ‘If you fix this, and you solve that problem, you’ve got our loyalty for life.’”

So last year Staples began working with manufacturers on creating a rebate-redemption program. The company contracted with marketing technology company Parago to develop a rebate program that works without requiring Universal Product Codes (UPCs) as proof of purchase. Staples forwards the value of each week’s rebates to Parago, which then cuts and mails individual rebate checks to consumers. Parago also developed the Staples.com/EasyRebates Web page and an FTP connection with Staples.

Sherlock says that nearly all of Staples’ vendors and manufacturers are on board with the new program, though a process for processing online rebates for software is still being developed. Online software rebates are expected to be in place in the first half of 2005. Software manufacturers have varying methods for verifying if a customer qualifies for a rebate, Sherlock says, and Staples was not able to develop a system for unifying how they handle rebates in time for the Easy Rebates launch.

Staples’ Thanksgiving circular featured 86 rebate promotions. Ninety percent of them were available through Staples Easy Rebates. The nine that are not were for software purchases. Staples is also promoting Easy Rebates across Staples.com, in all 1,100-plus stores, and in its catalogs. The company could not say if or when it would expand Easy Rebates to its Quill Corp. catalog division.

Ellen Tolley, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation, says she hadn’t heard of any other companies using online rebate systems but wouldn’t be surprised if the system pops up elsewhere in the near future. Consumers have embraced the Internet, and the ease of submitting the rebate and knowing it has reached the manufacturer would likely appeal to customers.

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