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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Good neighbor

    The most effective marketing message is local, and new in-store technology is making that efficient, too.

    Most food industry professionals would agree that some of our most innovative marketing ideas come to mind when we're not at work. Some awaken us in the middle of the night, prompting us to scramble for a pen and pad of paper before we forget, while others often surface during an early-morning shower or a sprint on the treadmill.

    For Illinois entrepreneur Mark Ruttenberg, that moment of insight came five years ago while he was standing in line at a local ATM machine. Watching a variety of electronic messages appear on the ATM's screen, Ruttenberg thought suddenly about the impact local advertising could have on neighboring businesses and local civic organizations -- and he immediately began to conceptualize what would become a lucrative business opportunity that's now bringing supermarkets closer to their customers.

    What he developed was Normal, Ill.-based Monarch Visual Solutions, Inc., a privately held company that produces a turnkey marketing program allowing participating retailers, including IGA, Piggly Wiggly, Jubilee, and numerous others, to increase not only customer counts and bottom-line revenue, but also consumer loyalty and community presence. Experiencing tremendous growth during the past three years, Ruttenberg's company is currently operating in 24 states, with plans to enter 10 more by this coming June. His product, in essence, is a vehicle for customized local marketing.

    "The traditional media of advertising has been television, radio, and newspaper," explains Ruttenberg. "For many merchants these forms of advertising haven't been cost-effective, since they cover larger geographic areas, and potential customers would not be expected to drive in from these long distances."

    He adds: "Does it make sense for a video store to advertise five to 10 miles away when there are two other video stores in those neighborhoods? Probably not."

    Ruttenberg's alternative to traditional media, which he calls Monarch3, makes available to retailers a highly effective revenue-generating program of point-of-sale community awareness and advertising. Working in conjunction with local noncompeting merchants, the company installs at supermarket checkout lanes its patent-pending three-sided point-of-sale kiosks, at no cost to the storeowners. Each unit houses one 17-inch NEC Mitsubishi flat-panel lead crystal display, as well as featuring two billboard or "static" panels. The unit displays ads from the store itself, along with other ads funded by nearby businesses and secured by Monarch.

    Simple to manage, the program compensates each participating supermarket on a monthly basis, by total number of units installed. Supermarkets can boost program income by scheduling other businesses, mainly vendors or suppliers, to promote their goods and services on the static (nonelectronic) panels of the kiosks. Monarch simplifies the entire advertising process by providing predesigned templates from which the guest advertisers may choose.

    Priceless connections

    During the recent IGA Global Summit in Las Vegas, I caught up with Monarch's v.p. of marketing, Steve Yerbic, who was attending the invitation-only event as a member of IGA's coveted Red Oval Family. We discussed how differentiation, and especially technology, are driving today's independent sector. Yerbic, whose career in sales and marketing spans nearly 30 years, acknowledged my concern about some forms of technology that are doing little more for independents than providing frustration.

    I asked Yerbic to detail specifically how his most successful clients are employing the program to achieve maximum benefit. "In a nutshell, the Monarch program allows retailers to look their best through image enhancements, customer retention, and branding their store by name," he said. "Featured on the kiosk panels is information that truly interests the customers, such as photos and biographies of employees of the month; local news and headlines, including Amber Alerts; upcoming charitable events in the community; new product introductions that provide customers with the impression that their store is constantly improving variety; private label and exclusive store-brand promotions; health, wellness, and household tips; personalized thank-you messages to customers; and more.

    "We've partnered with USA Today to provide, via DSL, updated news every three hours, along with five-day weather forecasts," added Yerbic.

    The opportunity to cement relationships through very specific, very local information services is palpable. "Just imagine how thankful that customer was whose missing pet was recovered because someone in the local community viewed a lost-pet alert on one of our Monarch3 kiosks. Consumer connections like this are truly priceless."

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