It always seemed mind-bogglingly difficult to achieve the kinds of savings portrayed on the TLC show “Extreme Couponing.” Thanks to tougher supermarket policies and the proliferation of less valuable coupons, extreme savings through coupons seems downright impossible.
The best coupons have two key features: They offer discounts on the products you like and would be buying anyway, and the discounts are substantial enough to justify the time required for clipping them.
Increasingly, however, American consumers are coming across coupons that have neither of these features. A NCH Marketing report released earlier this year indicated that there was a 17% drop in coupon redemption in 2012. Among consumers who used fewer coupons last year, the most popular explanation given for the decreasing in couponing was this: “I can’t find coupons for the products I want to buy.”
What’s more, it’s getting more difficult to find coupons that save the shopper a decent chunk of change. In early May, Kroger, one of the world’s largest supermarket companies, lowered prices on thousands of items in its stores in Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region. You’d expect that news like that would be greeted with applause and gratitude from consumers. Instead, many shoppers have been grumbling that recent changes at Kroger will make them more likely to frequent dollar stores and Walmart—because Kroger’s price drops were accompanied by a ban on double couponing.
The company had previously pulled the plug on double coupons in Texas and California, and spokesman Carl York told the Charleston (W.V.) Gazette that shoppers shouldn’t expect any stores to double coupons—turning 30¢ off coupon instantly into 60¢ off at the register—down the line. “I think double coupons is something that’s going to go away at some point,” York said. “The industry is moving away from that.”
Regardless, shoppers have created a Bring Back Doubles Facebook page, and online commenters have been chiming in with observations comparing the move to JC Penney’s much-hated decision to scale back on coupons. Here’s how one commenter responded to a Roanoke Times story about Kroger’s changes:
Doing away with doubling coupons is a deal breaker for me. I’ll do most of my shopping now at Walmart, where volume really does show up in their pricing, and the coupons will now be worth the same. I believe this change will go in the same file as JCP’s attempt to reinvent itself.
This reading of the situation may be a bit, well, extreme. Kroger isn’t banning coupons altogether like JC Penney basically did; the supermarket just stopped the practice of doubling their value for shoppers in certain locations. Supermarket News quoted Kroger CFO Michael Schlotman speaking at a conference recently, explaining that only a “very small number of customers actually engage in” double coupons, and that it would be fairer to spread the savings around via across-the-board price cuts:
“Now, they’re a very vocal part of your customer base, and they don’t like it when you stop giving them that reward,” he said. “But the percentage of customers who actually enjoyed the benefit of that, our view was we were better off taking those dollars and investing them in better prices for all of our customers rather than rewarding just a select segment of our customers.”
Whether or not Kroger has truly been offering “better prices” is up for debate (many shoppers report not being impressed by the supposed price cuts), but what’s undeniably true is that outlawing double coupons makes it more difficult for couponers to snag the extreme kind of savings seen on TV. It’s not just Kroger either. Walmart store managers have been known to make life more annoying for extreme couponers by, for example, mandating that certain cash-back coupon schemes be painstakingly doled out one at a time, rather than in a single transaction.
Coupon enthusiasts such as Jill Cataldo don’t blame Kroger or other supermarkets for the changes they’ve made regarding coupons. Instead, they point to the popular TLC program “Extreme Couponing,” which shows shoppers purchasing hundreds of dollars of merchandise for a few bucks using various extreme (and possibly bogus) coupon strategies. In her syndicated couponing column, Cataldo wrote that there has been an “Extreme Couponing effect.” After the show began airing, coupons became less valuable—”Manufacturers that previously offered $1 coupons now offer coupons good for $1 off on the purchase of two items”—and grocery store chains introduced tougher restrictions on coupon usage.
Store clerks likewise say that retailers have little choice but to crack down on extreme couponers, some of whom seem willing to do almost anything to cut down on their grocery bills. “People who do the extreme coupons are generally the most vicious people you will ever meet,” one Kroger clerk explained to Consumerist.com. “They’ll cut off the dates of expired coupons, try to use several coupons per item and will argue when you shut them down.”
Some couponers will attempt to do much worse than any of that. Last summer, a woman from Phoenix named Robin Ramirez was arrested for overseeing a $40 million counterfeit coupon ring, in which fake coupons were created and sold via eBay and other outlets for less than face value. The Arizona Republic reported that Ramirez was just sentenced to two years in state prison and has been ordered to make restitution payments to the tune of $5 million.
One of the police officers involved in the investigation that brought the coupon ring down said that fraud “causes manufacturers to give out fewer coupons and coupons with a lower face value,” according to the Republic.