Paper coupons just won’t die

Originally published on clarionledger.com, 11/10/15.

Going to the grocery store these days is a lot different experience than it was even just 10 years ago. Look around the aisles, and you’ll find shoppers hunched over their smartphones, hunting bargains. Alongside those phones are often stacks of paper “cents-off” coupons.

You’d think the paper coupon would by now be relegated to the dustbin of history, joining 8-track tapes, party lines and S & H Green Stamps. In an age in which many retailers have converted their coupon programs to digital rewards programs, it would seem inevitable that the old “clip-and-save” habits of Americans would have disappeared. But a new report from Creditcards.com seems to refute that notion; Americans are still in love with paper coupons.

Even tech-dependent Millennials still like to get out their scissors and find bargains twice as much as they seek out any other savings method, noted the study, which asked Americans who use coupons to reveal their coupon habits. “Dead trees aren’t dead when it comes to coupons,” said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst. “Plenty of Americans are still opening their snail mail and reading the Sunday paper. I expect paper coupons to lose some market share, though, as consumers and brands get even more comfortable using them electronically.”

According to the study, 85 out of every 100 consumers seek out some coupon savings, whether print or electronic. While electronic programs are gaining ground, however, they are still just a small fraction of the total. A healthy 63 percent of those surveyed said they most frequently use coupons from newspapers, mailings and other paper products. A distant second in the survey was entering a discount code online, followed by presenting a digital version of a coupon on the phone.

Some coupon aficionados have helped keep the paper coupon alive through what’s known as extreme couponing. This trend (exemplified by its own TLC show from 2010 to 2012) has helped some people save big at the checkout line, but is said to be time- and labor-intensive. Some have criticized the show and the concept itself because it is said to encourage hoarding unneeded items and potential fraud and misuse. It has been the target of groups such as the Coupon Information Corporation, a “not-for-profit association of consumer product manufacturers dedicated to fighting coupon misredemption and fraud,” which charged the show with encouraging potentially-illegal acts.

Still, you can save money with coupons without going to extremes. In his article How to coupon at $50 an hour on his The Simple Dollar website, Trent Hamm notes that getting the biggest bang for the buck can start with a simple, systematic approach, with careful planning and discipline. The target is not necessarily to have 10 giant-sized bottles of laundry detergent lying around, but rather to save money on things you already buy.

Here are a few tips:

Just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use it. If a coupon is for something you would be buying already, then use it. But if you buy something just because you have a coupon (unless the end price is zero), you are likely to spend more than you would have otherwise. That defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it?

Take advantage of sales to “stack” savings. For example, if an item is on sale, and you have a coupon for it, you can often save more that way.

Some stores still allow you to “stack” coupons. This practice is becoming rarer, but some stores still allow you to use multiple coupons for the same purchase. Check with your store to see if this is permitted.

Sign up for your favorite stores’ coupon promotions. If you don’t mind getting extra mail or email, you can sign up for coupons from your favorite stores, delivered to your mailbox or inbox. Some store loyalty programs (such as Kroger’s) will send you coupons based on your buying history.

Read the fine print. All retailers have some policies about coupon use, and the fine print on the coupon gives you the issuer’s limitations. It’s important to know those going in, so you know what you can expect.

Remember that retailers and customers need each other. Businesses need customers and customers need businesses; it’s a symbiotic relationship. When shoppers come in the door, and they can find real savings, it benefits customer and retailer alike. Successful retailers know that saving money is important to their customers, and most will work with you to maximize savings opportunities. Your business is important to them, and if you check, you will probably find that they will do everything they can to help you. That way, everybody wins.

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