The best and worst for consumers last year

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2012 - 3:58 PM

What did consumers take to the extreme in 2011? Daily deal sites, precious metals and coupons, to name a few.

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A shopper on "Extreme Couponing"

As food, gas and clothing prices went up in an economy going nowhere, consumers in 2011 were left reeling. After three years of reining in spending, experts wonder if our financial habits are permanently changed. Maybe. What we know for sure is that some trends took hold that will change the shopping landscape for the foreseeable future. And there were some that we wish would go away.

Here's a look at some of the highs and lows we experienced in the marketplace in 2011.

A TV show about coupons? Who woulda thunk it?

Extreme sports found a new variation in the supermarket checkout line as extreme couponers took advantage of sale prices and double coupon days, and then combined store coupons and manufacturers' coupons to pay mere pennies for hundreds of dollars' worth of groceries. So many shoppers elevated clipping to an art form that TLC added "Extreme Couponing" to its TV lineup. Just as tchotchke collectors often need an entire room to display their treasures, extreme couponers often overtake the garage or the den with cereal, snacks, pasta and toothpaste, all stacked 20 deep.

In the Twin Cities, Rainbow attracts the most couponers with double coupon days on Wednesdays. While its prices are slightly higher than Cub, SuperTarget or Wal-Mart, that changes on Wednesdays, when smart shoppers take their highest value coupons, up to $1 each, and combine them with sale prices to get deals better than at Costco or Sam's Club. (Note: Only coupons for $1 or less are doubled; $25 minimum purchase.)

All that glitters is worth more than you think

Gold hit an all-time high in 2011, which left a few prospectors who had already sold class rings and broken necklaces wishing that they had waited. But there was a silver lining in the precious metal euphoria. Silver also hit record highs this year, and sellers began to realize that assayers don't care if a sterling platter is tarnished or the flatware pattern is ugly. Sellers were getting $2,500 for a sterling serving tray and $4,000 for a set of sterling flatware.

But the amount that buyers pay varies widely. A good rule of thumb is that retailers who won't quote prices by phone (Gold Guys and Wedding Day Jewelers) generally pay less. In a price check of four buyers last month, Enviro-Chem (Rogers, 763-428-2002) paid the highest per pennyweight at $39.82 for 14-karat gold. Gold Guys paid the least at $25. Excelsior Coin (Excelsior, 952-474-4789) was at $38.50, and Independent Precious Metals (Spring Lake Park, 763-300-1003) was paying $38.

Meanwhile, purveyors of fine jewelry and silver gnash their teeth as priceless pieces of artistic value are being melted down. If you think a gold or silver piece might be artistically significant, consider taking it to a collector for advice or asking buyers if the piece is destined for a meltdown.

Groupon must be flattered by all of its imitators

Fifty million Americans are saving 50 to 70 percent at daily deal sites such as Groupon. The popularity skyrocketed in 2011 and the Twin Cities now has more than 25 sites that help you save cash at restaurants, entertainment venues, for travel and the ubiquitous spa treatments and teeth whitening offers. But fans found themselves so overwhelmed with the deals that aggregators such as Yipit.com came in to combine five to eight deals (and e-mails) in one. The trend also spawned organizing sites that keep track of your vouchers from different sites and send reminders near expiration dates. Tip: If daily deal fatigue has you letting coupons expire, don't throw them away. Retailers will honor the amount paid for the deal.

Flo, if you talk less, will my premiums do down?

Overexposure to certain TV commercials was just as fatiguing. The actors in the TV ads for insurance companies were busy in 2011 convincing us how good their deals were. Flo (Progressive), Dennis Haysbert and Dean "Mayhem" Winters (Allstate), J.K. Simmons (Farmers insurance Group) and Martin, the gecko (Geico), had some of us convinced, but auto rates increased about 14 percent from 2008 to 2011, according to the Insurance Information Institute. You can save yourself hundreds of dollars by calling around to five different agencies. In a review of Twin Cities insurance rates by Checkbook.org, Progressive and Geico were price competitive for some drivers, but so were USAA, Liberty Mutual and the Hartford/AARP.

Cool, new trends: Black Thursday and price matching

For all the wailing about retailers opening at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving or midnight for Black Friday, it's the best idea retailers have come up with since implementing receipt lookup with a credit card. Record numbers of shoppers embraced the earlier openings. What's not to like? A little family time, a big meal, maybe a short nap, and then a chance to walk it all off in the hunt for a $229 big-screen TV.

Target started the policy of price matching competitors' ads in 2010, but Wal-Mart upped the ante this year by saying that customers didn't have to have the ad in hand to price match. The list of items not matched is still too long, but it's a step in the right direction. Kudos, Target and Wal-Mart.

Coming and going, opening and closing

We lost a good outlet store this year (Oh Baby! Outlet in Wayzata) and are in the process of losing another (Brand Name Deals in Fridley). Brand Name Deals, which closes Jan. 31, was a wonderful source for refurbished or returned flat-panel TVs, gaming systems and laptops, but quality declined in recent years. Fortunately, Discount 70 in Columbia Heights and DealSmart in Mounds View and Little Canada offer similar liquidation deals that make them worth a visit.

A couple of familiar names came back to life this year. Bachman's brought back its famous warehouse sale. In the past, bargain hunters had to wade through a lot of special purchase merchandise, but this year's sale offered better deals on everything from vintage decor to potted trees for $20 to $30. Note for next year: On the last few days, discounts increased to 75 and 90 percent.

The reopening of the Faribault Woolen Mill is great news for more than 30 workers employed there and for anyone who missed the made-in-Minnesota Faribo brand wool blankets. Although fans can buy at www.faribaultmill.com, the company hopes to open a permanent retail store at the mill soon, said vice president of sales Mich Berthiaume. After the shout out given on ABC World News in December, it's time.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/dealspotter.

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