When the economy stalls, coupon redemption goes up. Now shoppers are supplementing newspaper and magazine coupons with those printed via the Internet.
With the hassle factor, it's no wonder coupon redemption is low. Fewer than 2 percent of all coupons are redeemed, said Charles Brown, vice president at NCH Marketing Services in Deerfield, Ill., a coupon clearinghouse for manufacturers and retailers. When consumers started printing copies of Internet coupons, it was like printing money. That's when manufacturers began limiting the number that each user could print.
Soon, even printing your own coupons will seem old-school as consumers will be able to use their cell phones to download grocery coupons, which can then be shown or scanned at the register. Similar systems are already in place nationwide (Cellfire.com) and locally (ThreeWinners.com) for use at restaurants, video stores and car rental agencies. Just as our cell phone will eventually become our debit card, it will also be our coupon organizer, said Lempert.
Whether you're clipping or clicking, you'll need some tips for using coupons at the supermarket. Food prices rose by 5.6 percent in 2007, and Lempert expects them to increase even more this year.
• Use store and manufacturer's coupons on the same item. In this week's Cub Foods ad, all of the coupons say "Cub Coupon" on the top. Sometimes, Cub will include a manufacturer's ad, too. Both can be used on the same item. For example, the coupon offer from Cub is "Buy one family value pack, get one free." Combine that with a manufacturer's coupon for 75 cents off (two if you have them) for greater savings. Couponers call that a double play.
• Take expired coupons to Cub, which accepts coupons up to three months after their expiration dates. Several readers have told me recently that acceptance is inconsistent, so check at the customer service desk first.
• Don't be loyal to one brand. Some shoppers spend more because they always buy the same brand. Try a competing brand if it's on sale and you have a coupon. Sometimes a store brand without a coupon may be a better deal than the name brand.
• Organize your coupons. Buy a coupon organizer or use a recipe box. Put them in sequential order of the departments you shop. Some people staple or paper-clip them together to avoid losing them. Rae Lynn Klinger of Apple Valley keeps her coupons in the car so she doesn't forget them.
• Wait for an item to go on sale to maximize coupon savings.
• Check out sites such as CoolSavings.com, Coupons.com and SmartSource.com. All require the user to download software to print coupons, which prevents users from printing additional copies. SmartSource does not require users to register. All allow users to sign up for weekly e-mails and promotions.
• Ask retailers in your area if they accept coupons printed from the Internet before you bother to print them. Retailers' acceptance or rejection is hit-and-miss and might vary with location and even with the cashier. Some retailers have been burned by fraudulent coupons. Legitimate ones should have a scannable bar code and an expiration date, according to Matthew Tilley of CMS Inc., a processor of grocery coupons.
• Look for coupons at websites of your favorite retailers. Target's Internet coupons are its best kept secret, Stapf said. They're often hidden in private-label links such as Archer Farms and Market Pantry.
• Print coupons from manufacturers' websites. Gerber (Gerber.com) and Huggies (Huggies.com), for instance, frequently offer coupons at their sites. You'll have to register first, but you can save even more by signing up for e-mail newsletters that contain coupons.
• Use an Internet search for coupons if you're unsure of the manufacturer's website address. For example, say you've already clipped Cub's store coupon for "Buy one get one free" Gold'n Plump chicken and you want even more bang for your buck. Do a Google search on the words "coupon Gold'n Plump chicken" for a manufacturer's coupon.
• Get coupons on eBay. Many coupon clearinghouses "sell" coupons, too, but since it is illegal to sell coupons, most claim that the expense is for shipping and handling.