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Is everything old about to become new again? If so, you could soon be carrying around coins in your pocket instead of coupons.

A technology company is proposing to combine the convenience and capabilities of digital currency with the tangibility of pocket change, by creating physical coins with unique digital features that would allow them to be “programmed” to function as coupons or gift cards.

The idea is described in a newly-published patent application filed by BitMint, which describes itself as an “engineering boutique running on a wave of cyber space innovations.”

The invention, called “Robust Security Technology for Coupons,” allows stores and brands to issue coupons and credit in the form of a “secure physical coin” that can’t be counterfeited or duplicated.

“Money first emerged as solid metal measured by weight. It developed into flimsy banknotes, and then to counterfeit-prone digital expression,” the patent application reads. “Now we turn a full circle: digital physical coins.”

The coins would look and feel like any other coin or token, but they would contain “payload data captured in (their) chemical structure” that would be read when a cashier places the coin into a coin reader. The reader would connect to an online BitMint database to verify the value of the coin, then it would be accepted as payment just like regular cash.

Coins could be issued in specific denominations to be used in place of standard gift cards. Or they could be issued like coupons – instead of a Catalina coupon printing out at the register, for example, you might earn a coin good for a specific discount off a future purchase. Once the retailer accepts the coin, it can later be reloaded in value and handed out to another customer.

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Unlike out-of-sight, out-of-mind digital discounts that you might load to a loyalty account and forget to redeem, BitMint says a coin would be a tangible reminder to use it. You could pass it along to friends or family as a gift or as payment. And the coins could even be linked to your loyalty account – and programmed to be redeemable only by someone other than you, to encourage you to pass it on and refer a new customer to the store.

But will shoppers who have turned to apps and credit cards and digital payments really want to carry around coins? If all of this sounds a little like a solution in search of a problem, it might actually be something that a store like Big Y might consider.

For some two decades, the New England grocery chain offered a clever but quaint program in which it handed out gold, silver, red and blue coins redeemable for in-store discounts. Red and blue coins offered modest discounts, while silver coins offered deeper savings and gold coins might get you something for free. They were handed out to customers for buying promoted products, or sometimes just because.

And then Big Y pulled the plug on the popular program a couple of years ago.

“While it was a great program for many years, we are evolving the program to better serve and reward our customers,” the retailer explained. Taking their place were digital discounts that shoppers could load to their loyalty accounts. “No more carrying around gold coins!”

Many customers who loved the coins mourned their demise. But a store spokesperson said they were in the minority. “We were getting complaints, increasing complaints, that customers didn’t bring their gold coins, keep track of their gold coins and didn’t like keeping track of the discounts,” Big Y spokesperson Claire D’Amour-Daley said at the time. “We found we could be much more effective going digital… Just like every retailer in the world.”

Count loyalty marketing expert Brian Woolf as one who was not impressed with “going digital… just like every retailer in the world.”

“Big Y’s coin program has become an entrenched, differentiating alternative currency,” he wrote back in the program’s heyday. “This coin program gave Big Y a vehicle that rewarded its customers relative to their profitability in a way that competitors can neither measure nor effectively respond to.”

Instead, Big Y is now doing what everyone else is doing. Which brings us back to BitMint. The idea of handing out physical coins that you have to keep somewhere and remember to bring to the store in order to redeem, certainly seems a little backwards in our increasingly digital world. But any retailer that tries it will certainly stand out. Whether they stand out in a good way, or in a way that makes them look like they’re stuck in the 90’s, will depend on whether BitMint’s idea can become reality – or if being “like every retailer in the world” is the better option after all.

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