Time to cool it on the coupon craze

  • Article by: KARA MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2011 - 11:00 PM

Who doesn't like to save a buck. But at what cost?

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In this photo taken Tuesday, June 28, 2011, Monica Knight, a dental hygienist and mother of two, shows her coupon binder at her home in Boise, Idaho. Knight, a used to spend spent $600 a month on groceries. Thanks to extreme couponing she's down to $100-150 a month.

Photo: Jessie L. Bonner, Associated Press - Ap

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Carrie Rocha is used to the e-mails asking where to find the best deal on toilet paper. But the founder of the money-saving website Pocketyourdollars.com is unsettled by the ones from aspiring extreme couponers asking where to dumpster dive for coupon inserts. She tries to avoid using the words "extreme couponing" because it "conjures images of hoarding and labor-intensive quests to save a few pennies."

Rocha expunged $50,000 in debt with the help of coupons and now supports her Maple Grove family with her website, but she sees a disturbing element as more shoppers try to find ways to save. "To me, all the imagery and associations with the phrase 'extreme couponing' are negative," she said.

One viewing of TLC's over-the-top show "Extreme Couponing" was enough for me. The episode featured a guy with a special basement room for storing 1,000 nearly-free tubes of toothpaste and a set of twins who high-five each other when they wipe the store shelves clean of products they admit they might not use.

The show, which was recently renewed for a second season, debuted during a resurgence of coupon use prompted by the Great Recession. There's certainly a built-in audience for such a program. Nationally, shoppers redeemed 3.3 billion coupons worth $3.7 billion last year, according to NCH Marketing Services.

I'm a big coupon user myself, and employ many of the strategies shown on the show -- pairing store deals with coupons, using online coupon databases to plan trips, and scheduling shopping on double-coupon days. But recently, I've witnessed ruder shoppers and emptier shelves, and I've started to wonder if we're selling off our decency for $1 of savings.

Stories of extreme couponers gone wild prompted the Facebook community, Coupon Snippers of MN, to add a coupon code of ethics -- "Do not steal coupons from papers you did not purchase. ... Just because it's free doesn't mean you NEED it. Purchase wisely" ... "Be kind to your cashiers." In other words, don't go ballistic if they refuse one of your coupons. Maria Koshenina, a Somerset, Wis., mom who teaches couponing to the group, always reminds her students: "It's one coupon. It's not like it's going to be your last deal ever."

Jill Cataldo, a Chicago-based coupon consultant for retailers and manufacturers, said the "Extreme Couponing" show sets expectations too high. "If they don't start showing more realistic trips that average people can go in and do, it's just going to keep fueling this belief that everyone should be getting tons and tons of stuff free," Cataldo said.

The goal she sets for her readers at Supercouponing.com is to save 50 percent on each shopping trip. But the show routinely shows savings of 85 or 95 percent off, discounts she says are nearly impossible for average shoppers to replicate because stores made special exceptions for the show, waiving coupon policies such as limits on the number of doubled and tripled coupons. Accusations of coupon fraud are also circulating on coupon blog sites.

When asked about the criticisms, TLC spokesman Dustin Smith offered this statement: "The series is called 'extreme' couponing. It documents the tactics of a few savvy shoppers, and is more inspirational than instructional."

At Rainbow Foods, the only grocery chain in the Twin Cities that routinely accepts double coupons, 10 doubled coupons is the maximum it allows during special promotions; the typical number is five per transaction, generally on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

So far, the average shopper probably only feels the fallout from extreme couponing when a sale item is cleared from the shelves or they're stuck in line behind a person orchestrating multiple transactions. But the craze may ultimately dilute deals. Cataldo predicts we'll see more limits on how many like items can be purchased with a coupon per transaction or per day. Manufacturers may also reduce coupon values, so $1 off deals become harder to come by.

In response to the trend, some retailers are clearing up the gray areas in their coupon policies. Target Corp. recently added guidelines on Internet and mobile coupons, and spelled out its Buy One, Get One Free coupon policy. Contrary to widespread reports, spokeswoman Erika Winkels insists Target only clarified its coupon policy, not made it more restrictive.

There's also the chance that if customers routinely misuse coupons, the store won't be reimbursed by the manufacturer. That could translate into higher prices for us all.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or kmcguire@startribune.com Twitter: @Kara_McGuire

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