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Grocery chains aim to gain fans with high-tech marketing Interactive approach allows closer contact with consumers

Social media marketing is ubiquitous in today's business world, and no place more so than the grocery industry.

Tops Friendly Markets dipped its toe into social media marketing last year with a Facebook page centered around its in-store Monopoly promotion, which netted about 1,000 fans during its four-month run. It launched a Tops-dedicated Facebook page this month.

Last year, it revamped its Web site, adding lots of interactive features such as clickable icons in the store's ad to give recipes, preparation instructions, shopping lists and sale information.

Recently, the company introduced its "Tops Your Bucks" program, where customers can opt into receiving e-mail or text messages containing exclusive deals and promotions.

"Marketing has changed so much in the past few years. We're moving toward a more interactive world," said Diane Colgan, Tops' vice president of sales and marketing. "We still rely on traditional media, but there are a lot of potential customers who might not be looking at that. So we've been asking how we can migrate into these new technologies."

Navigating that migration to social media marketing has been part of the company's focus for much of the past year, second only to its major expansion with the acquisition of several Penn Traffic stores. It has proceeded at a careful pace, making sure it understands what customers want and making sure it has the resources to do things the right way.

"With social media, there is a high expectation that you will respond quickly. We want to make sure we have the right people available at all times," said Tops spokeswoman Katie McKenna.

> Direct contact

The beauty of social media is that it brings together people who are already loyal to your brand, and allows you speak and listen to them directly.

"Our friends on Facebook are a captive audience. They've sought us out," McKenna said. "They're already interested in what we have to say. Our job is to keep them interested."

Wegmans' Twitter account, launched about a year ago, has more than 11,000 followers. Its store in Hunt Valley, Md., has its own corporate Twitter account, with more than 600 followers. In November, it began piloting a Facebook page with its Pittsford store.

Pittsford, as a center of research and development for the Wegmans chain, will likely retain its own page, while separate pages will launch for the Rochester, Buffalo, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey areas. The company's public relations team will help "triage" to handle more difficult customer questions that pop up, such as those related to food safety and recalls.

Operating a social networking site is neither cheap nor easy. Jason Wehle, Wegmans' director of Internet marketing, knows having more specialized content for each store will cost many more work hours. The company's consumer affairs department puts 30 hours per week into social media and employs one employee dedicated solely to social media marketing -- and that's just to run one Twitter account.

But the company says the investment to have a local presence among and instant communication with its "people" is worth it.

"The timeliness of it is the greatest advantage. In a matter of 10 minutes we can [do things] that with traditional media are really impossible," Wehle said.

Take the summer's egg recall. Within moments, Wegmans was able to get the word out -- through its blogs, Web site and Twitter -- that the company's eggs were not affected.

> Listening to consumers

But even more valuable than its ability to talk is its ability to listen, Wehle said.

"We love that two-way communication," he said. "We take all of that feedback into consideration."

Wilson Farms' Facebook page has more than 13,000 fans. Special offers and contests keep users engaged, but executives know the follow-through is just as important as ever.

"We've still got to be able to deliver when people come to our stores," said Nick Gallegos, vice president of sales and marketing for Wilson Farms.

It also recently partnered with Foursquare, a software application that lets users tell friends where they are, and rolled out a mobile rewards program called Text and Save.

The Text and Save program allows Wilson Farms to send promotional offers directly to users' phones, which they can show to cashiers to redeem freebies and discounts.

"If you're given a code for free eggs or free milk, why wouldn't you take advantage of it -- and pick up a couple of other things along with it?" said Sean Macaluso, founder of the Macaluso Groups, which assists Wilson Farms and other grocers with its social media marketing.

The company will use that access in other innovative ways as well. For example, when snowstorms threaten, Wilson Farms can send out texts reminding customers to stock up on provisions. Or to increase traffic during slow times, the company can hold limited time promotions, such as two-hour-long sales during a brief summer rain storm.

> Mobile rewards

Dash's Markets engages on Foursquare, in a mobile rewards program and a Facebook page (with more than 500 fans so far).

The mobile rewards program was born out of the company's partnership with Shop to Cook, which maintains recipe and shopping-list kiosks throughout the store. Customers can sign up with their mobile phone number at the kiosks or online, and receive weekly text messages with code numbers that can be redeemed for anything from $5 off a dozen roses to a free gallon of milk.

"The response has been really good, and it's growing every week by the hundreds," said Joe Dash, the chain's owner.

The rewards entice customers into the store and help Dash's collect important data that helps it tailor marketing and promotions to what customers respond to.

With the cell phone app called Foursquare, users check in at participating locations via cell phone and share information with their friends. The user who visits any location the most on a given day is named "the mayor" of that place for the day. Dash's rewards its mayor daily with a free coffee.

"People really get a kick out of it," Dash said.

Budwey's Supermarkets' Facebook page -- it has nearly 1,000 fans so far -- is run by a third-party marketing company.

"Keeping up with the big boys as an independent is an ongoing, daily fight," said Tom Donnelly, a supervisor in the Budwey's three-store chain. "We'll do what we can to compete any way we can."

> E-mail specials

Store managers e-mail specials and information to the page administrator, who incorporates it into the page through status updates.

To engage customers, the company also runs promotions and contests. In October, fans who changed their profile picture to a shot of a Budwey's store were entered into a contest to win a gift card.

"Facebook has evolved into all segments of our population, all different age groups," said Donnelly. "It gives us the opportunity to reach out to everybody and get information out instantly."

Budwey's doesn't have the staff to devote to the intensive process of running a social media marketing campaign, but feels a Facebook presence is a necessary minimum for a company to maintain in the digital age.

"At this point, I can't measure the return on investment. But it's not that big of an investment, so it's not a big risk," said Donnelly.

Deep-discount, no-frills chain Aldi is the first to admit it hasn't ventured too deeply into social media marketing. But last summer, Aldi conducted its first major outreach to bloggers.

Targeting grocery blogs and blogs written by moms, Aldi issued its one-week challenge, asking shoppers to shop at their usual grocery store for one week, Aldi the next, then compare the difference in prices and quality. Some bloggers requested gift certificates to award as prizes to readers who participated, which Aldi provided.

The challenge allowed the company to directly engage potential customers, get them into its stores and let its products and prices stand on their own. It also opened the floodgates for genuine customer testimonials -- highly prized in social marketing.

"It went over really well. We had a great turnout," said Aldi spokeswoman Heather Tarc-zan.

> Tracking conversations

Aldi also conducts constant media monitoring -- watching for mentions of Aldi on TV, radio, the Internet and newspapers -- and jumping in when it sees fit. It helps the company stay in the loop of a conversation, even when it cannot be in control of it.

Other than that, Aldi has decided not to fully jump into the world of social media just yet.

"We want to make sure that if we commit to it, we can commit 100 percent," said Tarczan.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com