As of April 1, yet another major supermarket chain has put an end to double coupons, in which a store matches a manufacturer coupon, doubling the discount. The move comes amid a larger strategic war against “extreme couponing” being waged by grocery stores tired of giving away food and household staples for next to nothing to savvy shoppers who know how to work the system.
Ralphs, a popular supermarket chain in southern California owned by Kroger, officially changed its coupon and rewards program as of April 1, and unfortunately for extreme bargain hunters, this was no April Fool’s joke. The chain will no longer double manufacturer coupons, and the reward program was tweaked so that reward points could only be used for discounts on fuel at participating gas stations—and only customers using a Ralphs Plus Visa can get the discounts.
The changes have brought about much grumbling in the couponing community. Here’s a sample post from one (former) Ralphs shopper at Facebook, related via MSNBC:
“Bye, bye to double coupons and loyalty rewards. Bye, bye to Ralphs. They’ve lost me as a loyal customer.”
(MORE: Stores Confront Extreme Couponers’ Tactics with Policy Changes)
Ralphs’ changes come months after Kroger stores in Texas ended their double coupon offers; Kroger has also begun limiting how many online manufacturer coupons could be used by a shopper in a single day. While shoppers can turn to other stores with more coupon-friendly policies, the fear among coupon enthusiasts and consumer advocates is that other retailers will follow in the footsteps of Kroger and Ralphs. Edgar Dworsky, of the advocacy site Consumer World, noted:
“The worry is that other supermarket chains around the country will follow Ralphs’ and Kroger’s lead, since this is such a copycat industry,” commented ConsumerWorld.org founder Edgar Dworsky. “With the economy so tight, many shoppers count on the extra savings that double coupons provide to help stretch their food dollar.”
Even if doubling coupons is possible, shoppers are likely to encounter confusing rules and plenty of hoops to jump through and fine print to navigate in order to get anywhere near the savings achieved by the master strategists featured on the TLC show “Extreme Couponing.” The many rules regarding coupon usage at Super Fresh, for instance, are spelled out at the chain’s website, but while some restrictions apply to all stores—”One manufacturer coupon and one store coupon can be redeemed on a single item, however the total redemption cannot exceed the retail value of the item.”—other policies vary from store to store. It’s unclear if, when, and how shoppers can double coupons at a given store:
We do offer double coupons in many of our stores. Guidelines and amounts vary by location. Please check with your local store for details.
Only 1 manufacturer coupon may be applied to an individual item.
Only 4 like manufacturer coupons are allowed per transaction.
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The increase in coupon confusion and fine print, and the banning of especially valuable coupon practices such as doubling, has risen hand in hand with the popularity of the sometimes questionable money-saving techniques on “Extreme Couponing.” Understandably, habitual couponers aren’t fans of the changes. The Southern Cali Saver blog commented:
If they don’t think double coupons are a reason that people shop at their store–well, they have another thing coming.
TheGroceryGame blog and Consumer World’s Edgar Dworsky have noted, however, that even before the changes of Ralphs and Kroger, most coupons could not be doubled. Why? Most supermarkets have a history of only doubling coupons valued up to 99¢. At the same time, manufacturers tend to distribute coupons good for discounts of $1 or more off—effectively negating most chances of doubling coupons.
(MORE: Are the Money-Saving Strategies on ‘Extreme Couponing’ Bogus?)
“This not-so-coincidental smoke-and-mirrors practice allows stores to tout that they offer double coupons, when in reality, few coupons actually qualify for doubling,” wrote Dworsky.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.