Safeway is keen to try the stunt again and Tesco is thought to be considering its first text campaign to promote its clothing range.
The supermarkets are following in the wake of giant fmcg suppliers like Coca-Cola and Cadbury who have seen better than expected results from mobile campaigns which have seen millions interact with their brands ( The portable marketplace', The Grocer, March 22, p35). And, as we will explain later, text messaging also has potential in the B2B arena.
Safeway hit on the idea as it searched for a new promotional medium that would appeal to customers but not disrupt the running of the stores. Texting, suggested sales and marketing agency the Storm Agency, was the ideal medium. Lisa Holloway, Safeway's marketing controller of instore communications, recalls: "We wanted something that would work alongside other promotional activities.
"What was good about it was that when customers texted us, we would text them back not just to acknowledge receipt, but also with tailored promotional messages. So if it was a sunny day, we could let them know about a two-for-one barbeque deal, for instance."
She adds: "That was what was clever about it being able to send real-time messages to customers, which we've not been able to do before."
Holloway refuses to disclose the cost of the campaign, but says that some of the costs were footed by the brands involved Coca-Cola, Walkers, Birds Eye, Cadbury, Dairylea, Kenco and Panasonic.
She admits no one was quite sure what to expect at the outset. "It was the first time we'd done anything like this. The Storm Agency suggested we should set our target at 240,000 but to be honest we thought that was a bit ambitious."
Immediately after the campaign's launch, up to 12,000 customers a day took part. By the end, the figure had tailed off to a still respectable 6,000 to 7,000.
The other unusual characteristic of the campaign was the sheer number of brands involved. Holloway insists there were no problems persuading them to share the glory. "It wasn't an issue. We made sure there were no conflicting brands and so far we haven't had any negative feedback."
Sales figures for the sponsored products are still being evaluated but, says Holloway, "the initial signs are very positive".
One thing Safeway has not been able to do is to use any of the customer data for other purposes. Under the Data Protection Act, it could have asked participants whether they minded being contacted again, but the team decided against that as they had moved away from customer databases after abandoning the ABC loyalty card scheme in 2000.
However, says Holloway, this will not stop Safeway running further text campaigns, if on final analysis the first campaign proves to have been a success.
The industry has also begun to note what advantages might be drawn from texting outside the business-to-consumer arena.
Mike McGee, managing director of the business IT solutions company Smartertrader, has advised on and set up b2b text relationships between a number of wholesalers and food and drink brands, including Blakemore and Walkers, since launching the company last October. In fact, he believes the best use of the medium can be made in the wholesale sector. "The uses are numerous," he says. "You can use it to alert people to new products, for short-term promotions, clearance offers and events."
But, he emphasises, it has to be handled carefully. "Messages should be brief. You must think very carefully about the circumstances that it is right for. It's a short, sharp, in your face medium and it's definitely not appropriate for lengthy PR messages, or anything involving lists."
And anyone interested should be careful to select the right service provider a company that filters out any junk mail so that recipients are not bombarded with superfluous information, and one that uses the right networks, not just the cheapest ones, to ensure messages do get through.
When it's used in the right way, the statistics speak for themselves. In terms of the strike rate, it is high around 20% compared to the 5% to 7% you would expect from other media.
Smartertrader has signed up 24 clients to its texting service and hopes to have 100 by the end of the year. McGee thinks that the industry will go for texting in a B2B context, because "it's such a good medium and adds a lot of value to an operation".
He adds: "It should replace some of the telesales activity and will therefore generate a cost saving in terms of leaflets and so on."
However, he urges: "Make sure you take some advice first. Don't just go ahead and do it. It looks easy, but it's easy to get wrong."