GroceryServer, ZipList put the web to work clipping coupons

The internet has revolutionized many of our mundane tasks, but there’s one chore that the dual wizards — the web and the mobile phone — haven’t yet conquered: clipping grocery coupons. Millions of people cut coupons from store circulars and newspapers, even print them out from email, but so far it’s been awfully difficult to digitize those 25-percent-off and buy-one-get-one-free promotions into a mobile app.

While there are innumerable coupon apps in the market, they’re primarily designed to access the world of online promotional offers. There’s still a wealth of small-bore grocery coupons and deals offered by national food brands and local grocery stores alike that never make onto a website or into a daily deal app. They’re trapped in the merchandizing software that the grocery stores use to manage their inventory and sales.

But Seattle-based startup claims to have tapped into those systems, translating their proprietary grocery data into a language a web or mobile app can understand. CEO and co-founder Corbin de Rubertis said GroceryServer is now putting that data to work to create a hyperlocal digital marketing platform for grocers.

ZipList, a recipe aggregator and grocery app maker owned by Condé Nast, is integrating GroceryServer’s data into its shopping list app. Using ZipList’s web interface, accessible from its own site as well as through 200 partner recipe sites, you can search for coupons and grocery offers by food category, brand, zip code and even specific stores. If you’re looking at a specific recipe saved from one of ZipList’s partner food sites, the engine will tell you if there are any national or local deals for the ingredients in that recipe.

ZipList CEO Geoff Allen said that ZipList would soon give its couponing engine the smarts to reverse the meal-planning process. Instead of matching deals against your menu, ZipList will be able to generate menus based on deals available in your area or specifically in the stores you shop in. For instance if there’s a stellar discount on ground sirloin at the local Safeway(s swy), ZipList will scour your saved recipe library for dishes that utilize ground beef. “We have a goal of localizing every recipe on the Web,” Allen said.

Bridging the broader world of food — from restaurant menus, recipe ingredient lists and nutritional data as well as mac-n’-cheese coupons – with the web is a huge problem that we have explored in depth at GigaOM. Food and nutritional data come from multiple sources and they’re used by multiple end-points and applications, not all of them friendly to outside sources of data. One of those sources is the cash register, which presented a tricky problem to Grocery Server and ZipList.

Delivering individual digitized coupons with their own bar codes is counterproductive if you’ve got a stack of offers you’re trying to take advantage of. GroceryServer and ZipList have tried to solve the problem by uploading coupon data to customers’ loyalty cards – when you scan in your Safeway or Kroger(s kr) card, the discounts are automatically applied to your bill. For customers who don’t have loyalty cards (or stores that don’t offer them), ZipList allows you to print out a scan form, which can be handed the cashier.

How local is local?

GroceryServer is capable of parsing the databases of big national grocery chains and food distributors like Kraft(s kft), but a good deal of the potential savings on groceries is available at the local level. We’re not just talking the corner market or the independent butcher shop. Individual outlets of the national chains run their own sales based on what they have in inventory, and except in rare cases, those offers aren’t entered into the national merchandizing databases, GroceryServer’s de Rubertis said.

GroceryServer has tried to tackle both issues by creating a multi-tiered marketing system, which not only tracks nationwide promotions automatically but also allows grocery managers to manually enter local limited-time sales into its system. If a store has an abundance of halibut – whether it’s the independent fishmonger or the seafood counter at Whole Foods(s wfm) – a manager could create a promotional offer in GroceryServer’s system and have it appear right next to the coupons for Coca Cola and Velveeta in ZipList’s grocery list app.

Such a system can help revolutionize the concept of local grocery marketing, de Rubertis said. Instead of relying on circulars that have to be designed, printed and distributed days, if not weeks, in advance, stores can react immediately to their changing inventories. Rather than focus on processed or packaged foods, as most couponing campaigns do, deals move to the perishable-good fringes of the market where expiration dates and shelf life require much more nimble merchandizing. And instead of making coupon clipping the realm of the big box grocery stores, GroceryServer’s hyperlocal platform can scale all the way down to the local fruit stand and farmers’ market.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock user Chris Howey.