ECONOMIC BRIEFS

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Big Bucks in Prepping Teens for SAT

ON Saturday, high school students across the country will cram into classrooms and test centers to take the oft-dreaded SAT, or Scholastic Assessment Test, America's main college-entrance exam. But No. 2 pencils aren't the only tool students are investing in.

A large majority will have signed up for SAT review courses or bought books or new CD-ROM software products in hopes of boosting their score.

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In the age of ever-rising college costs and hyper-concerned parents, SAT preparation has become big business - a $50 million business, estimates James Reynolds, director of electronic publishing for The Princeton Review in New York, one of the Goliaths of the test-prep industry.

About 1.8 million students take the SAT each year, according to the College Board in New York, which sponsors the exam. No official estimates exist as to how many of those actually purchase test-prep material. But Mr. Reynolds estimates that about 50,000 students take an SAT review course each year; about 600,000 to 700,000 SAT review books are sold; and about 50,000 units of software will be sold within the next year.

''There are some parents who will buy all three: books, software, and send their kids to our course,'' Reynolds said in an interview.

Review courses are the largest segment of the test-prep industry, which he estimates at $30 million. (A seven-week course costs on average between $500 and $700.) When The Princeton Review was started in 1981, Reynolds says, 13 students signed up to take the course. Today, 30,000 students a year take Princeton's SAT review course.

But Reynolds says, test-prep software, which he estimates to be a $10 million business, is the fastest-growing market segment because of the explosion of personal computers. About 40 percent of all households in the United States are projected to own a PC by 1996.

- Shelley Donald Coolidge

With all roads leading to Internet, coupons follow

FOR the past 100 years, coupons have sent consumers scurrying for their scissors. But soon shoppers may be clipping with the click of a mouse.

Next spring, Coupons Online, a division of Database Marketing Company, will launch what would be the first electronic coupon-clipping service on the Internet and all the major on-line services.

''We offer manufacturers a new route into the media,'' says Craig Barnett, president of the New York-based company.

So far, three subsidiaries of Unilever US - Thomas J. Lipton Company, Lever Brothers Company, and Cheseborough-Pond's Inc. - have signed up to go on-line. Other top packaged-goods manufacturers are also planning to join, Mr. Barnett says.

To use the service, consumers first download free software to be used off-line. Then once a week they go back on-line and gather coupons, downloading them to the software, which saves, organizes, and files them for up to a month. Shoppers can print out the coupons they wish to use. Coupons Online estimates that at the outset it will be available to at least 10 million households.

The company is also negotiating with major retail chains to bring coupons and other incentives on-line. Initially, the service's promotions will be more ''on the retailing side of things than on the packaged-goods side of things,'' says Bruce Malinowski, the firm's vice president of marketing and sales.

Coupons were started by Asa Candler a century ago as a way to get people to drink Coca-Cola at his soda fountain. They are now offered by more than 3,000 manufacturers and save consumers more than $4.5 billion a year.

Skeptics wonder if today's coupon user is ready for electronic promotions. Lynn Liddle, spokeswoman for Valassis Communications, one of two companies that produces the coupon inserts for weekend newspapers, maintains that we are ''still a society that likes print.''

She also questions the service's ability to reach an appropriate audience and to avoid fraud. The latter is a perennial problem with paper coupons, costing the industry an estimated $500 million a year.

''We've worked very hard to ensure'' that the coupons are fraud-proof, contends Barnett. He says that the program's unique ability to print scanable bar codes, which include household identification numbers, should deter fraudulent redemptions.

''We do not think that their method is open to any more fraud than any other kind of coupon,'' says Joan Johnson, marketing manager at CMS Inc., a manufacturers' agent for coupon-management that has been working with the company.

As for audience, Mr. Malinowski says statistics indicate that 85 percent of on-line subscribers, who are generally upscale, use coupons.

- Kim Campbell

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