Personal, relevant is Meijer's Web marketing goal

February 24, 2009
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Meijer Inc.’s venture into e-commerce is just a baby, and Rob Fleener couldn’t be a prouder papa.

The Grand Rapids retail chain’s vice president for marketing and e-commerce said the well-researched consumer applications on the company’s World Wide Web site have a personal touch that newspaper inserts and television commercials just can’t match.

“As print media becomes more expensive and, really, less relevant with the younger consumer base, we’re trying to shift more attention over to areas that are more relevant to our customers,” Fleener said. “My parents will always read a Sunday one-stop. My daughters will never gain information or get news from a newspaper; it’s all done through different media.”

Meijer MealBox was developed with Qponix, a joint venture of Meijer and e-commerce developer Fry Inc., headquartered in Ann Arbor. Run by several former Fry executives, Qponix’s goal is to create and market e-commerce widgets to retailers.

“We developed it with them. We actually have some skin in the game,” Fleener said.

Fry was acquired last summer by Micros Systems Inc., a Maryland company that provides software for the hospitality and retail industries. Micros, which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ, paid $31.3 million for Fry, assumed $18.4 million in debt, and promised as much as $17 million to Fry shareholders over 23 months, based on financial targets, according to a press release.

The application offers meal plans and recipes and ties them to coupons and sales offered by the 185-store chain. The site has drawn 500,000 unique visitors since it debuted in May, and 13,000 people have downloaded MealBox widgets — tiny applications — to their own blogs, Web sites, iGoogle or social networking pages, Fleener said.

In December, trade publication Internet Retailer named Meijer MealBox as a “Hot 100” best retail Web site for 2009. “Meijer.com is breaking new ground with widget technology,” Internet Retailer reported.

A cross-disciplinary team works on the MealBox project, from dieticians and merchandising to marketing and information technology, he said. The company also has a new media division. Meijer, which had worked with Fry previously, turned to Fry again to craft its first major e-commerce application.

“For us to be able to bring in all the resources we would need to do all these things ourselves would be cost-prohibitive,” Fleener said.

Since the MealBox launch, Meijer.com has added another feature to help people choose wines by food pairing and price point, and a bulk-purchasing program intended for small businesses, community groups and churches. Meijerbrand.com is an attempt at social networking about Meijer stores and products.

“We did extensive market research. We tried different things and got all kinds of feedback,” Fleener said. “We’re trying to find a fine line between what’s working today and what’s working tomorrow.”

Fleener said 60 percent of meijer.com’s sales have been from outside the retailer’s seven-state footprint, which he thinks is a testimony to the activity of online bargain hunters during the holidays. 

Additions are planned for meijer.com this year, he added. One feature expected to roll out this spring is “site-to-store,” which allows consumers to order products online and have them available at the nearest Meijer store for pickup, without incurring shipping charges. “One of the big hindrances online has been the shipping costs that are incurred with that,” Fleener said. “We expect that to be out in the second quarter of this year.”

Unlike Grocery Express, which allows consumers to order groceries online and have them loaded in their vehicles at the Knapp’s Corner store in Grand Rapids, site-to-store will include other goods, such as televisions.

The labor-intensive Grocery Express has not been a money-maker, Fleener acknowledged, but it has been a convenience for certain shoppers who, because of disabilities, small children or lack of time, may have a harder time navigating the big stores.

“By mid-summer, we’ll have three or four more locations in different markets up and running. It’s something that we’re looking at very, very closely to see if it really can provide a value to our customers. If we end up attracting some new customers because of the services we provide, then there’s some benefit to it that way.”

And for every new idea that finds its way to the Web site, there are 20 being tested, he added.

Fleener said that as more targeted, measurable online applications are developed for retailers, the retreat from mass media marketing is slow and uncertain.

“When you talk about Tivo and all these different things, XM Radio, you’re losing a large share of audience, as far as what used to be prime time, to be able to promote to people,” Fleener said.

“We’re not cutting back on it. We’re finding it, I think, each year becoming harder and harder to have that print ad become relevant. I think it’s going to be a necessity for my lifetime and for a lot of people. But you see newspapers now who are taking their circulation down to three or four days a week. As the world becomes less dependent on newspapers, we have to figure out a way to become more dependent on areas that are going to be able to get information to our customer base.”

Right now, Fleener said, growth is happening at Meijer’s Web site.

“Currently, from a dot-com standpoint, without getting into numbers, our growth currently is trending about five times higher than last year,” Fleener said.

“Even as the dot-com industry’s growth is slowing down to a 14 to 15 percent projected increase, we’re finding that we’re doing very much higher than what industry averages are doing. We’re young, but we’re still very, very impressed with what we’re seeing.”

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