How Coupons Became Cool

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At some point over the last three or so years, coupons became cool. Once presumed to be the domain of eccentric cranks demanding a measly 50¢ off toothpaste or canned soup, coupons are now regularly used for deals on skydiving trips, designer fashion, and fancy restaurants. The embarrassment of using coupons is gone—and so is the guilt of splurging on purchases you really don’t need.

When exactly did coupons become cool? I’d say around the middle of 2009, when really began to catch on. Since then, the daily deals market has exploded, and some 23 million Americans bought daily deal coupons last year.

Why have coupons become cool? Groupon might point to the hip, offbeat humor used in its ads. I’d argue that it’s more because, for most people, the concept of saving money seems like a chore. But getting a deal? That’s fun. It’s especially fun when the purchase itself is fun (fancy restaurants, skydiving), and when it’s a deal that others don’t know about, so that there’s a feeling of insider-ness and exclusivity. Daily deals are so common nowadays, if you’re not using them you may feel like you’re missing out.
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Daily deals have already pushed into the high-end terrain of $10,000 hotel packages and $30,000 weddings. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that daily deal coupons are now being used in the city’s top restaurants, and that it’s not only a discount bringing customers in. Instead, it’s the exclusivity/insider angle, provided by “secret” menus available only to diners who purchased the coupon in advance. A customer might pay $10, which buys a reservation, a coupon for 30% off the meal, and—perhaps most importantly for certain foodies—a special pass code that grants access to an “exclusive menu” inside the restaurant.

Is this all just smoke and mirrors to get customers in the door, and coming back for more? Perhaps. But it seems to be working. A few years ago, the idea of using a coupon at a gourmet restaurant would have been laughable. Even today, few diners would pull out an old-fashioned clipped piece-of-paper coupon at a high-end establishment, especially if accompanied by someone you’re trying to impress. But with many of today’s daily deal coupons, the discounts are arranged ahead of time (via the restaurant’s reservation system) or handled discreetly with the flash of a smartphone. As restaurant deal site VillageVines co-founder Ben McKean told the Chronicle:

“If you’re taking out a date or clients, you don’t want to pull out a coupon at the end of the meal,” McKean said.

Doug Clinton, a Piper Jaffrey analyst who covers the daily deal market, backs that sentiment when quoted in a USA Today story on daily deals:

“There’s not a stigma attached to pulling out a Groupon vs. pulling out a coupon you clipped from the newspaper. That makes you look totally out of touch.”

Retailers and restaurateurs also appreciate that daily deal coupons help lower the guilt factor among consumers. Shoppers are much more likely to bite—and not feel bad about it—if they feel like they’re getting a special, can’t-pass-up deal. Stephanie Nelson, of CouponMom, had this to say to USA Today about the kind of discount provided by Groupon, LivingSocial, and others:

“It takes away the guilt of spoiling yourself. And maybe that’s what (daily-deal sites are) tapping into here at the end of the recession.”

Back to the “totally out of touch” comment above: Is that really an apt description of today’s more traditional coupon clippers? They can seem like an odd bunch, especially as portrayed on TLC’s hit show “Extreme Couponing.” But the fact that the show is a hit demonstrates that people find couponing (or at least the dorky, obsessive variety of couponing) fascinating. And why? Perhaps because concepts like “frugal chic” and “thrifty glamour” haven’t disappeared in post-recession times. Perhaps because the coolness of Groupon, BuyWithMe, LivingSocial, and all the others have generated some down-river coolness for even the “uncool” coupons gathered from dumpsters and clipped from newspapers.

But also, perhaps because the extreme couponers themselves seem like insiders. They have special knowledge, and they’re getting away with something that sounds absurd and borderline illegal: free stuff! (Who cares if this kind of couponing is highly impractical, and often impossible? It makes good TV. I’d love to see a followup show about hilariously frustrated supermarket shoppers trying to get extreme like the folks on TLC’s program.)
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What’s pretty amazing is that, no matter what’s considered cool or not, all coupons serve the same purpose: to entice consumers to buy what they wouldn’t have purchased otherwise. Based on the ubiquity and popularity of all sorts of coupons today, they’re certainly succeeding in that mission.