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Published July 30, 2011, 01:16 AM

Clipping to Save: Use of Coupons Growing

A dozen or more women gather around tables in the West Acres Shopping Center food court to swap coupons one Saturday each month. Their gathering often attracts the attention of passers-by.

By: Sherri Richards, Forum Communications

A dozen or more women gather around tables in the West Acres Shopping Center food court to swap coupons one Saturday each month. Their gathering often attracts the attention of passers-by.

As Sheila Gonser, organizer of the monthly Fargo meet-ups, says, “Coupons can be a great conversation starter.”

More people are using coupons, research studies, store officials and longtime coupon users say. The upward tick started with the economy’s downward turn, they said.

A show on cable’s TLC has recently upped the ante. “Extreme Couponing” shows shoppers saving hundreds of dollars in a single trip to the store by combining coupon deals to get massive quantities of products for pennies on the dollar.

“I definitely noticed an increase in people’s curiosity (about couponing) since the show began,” said Gonser, who is a stay-at-home mom to a 4-year-old daughter and has a baby on the way. “More people are curious to know how it all works.”

Gonser has used coupons since college and in late 2009 started the website FMCheapskate.com, where she outlines ways to combine specials with manufacturer coupons at local grocery stores. She shows readers how to get the same sort of deals as the shoppers featured on “Extreme Couponing,” but she says the show is called “extreme” for a reason.

“If I have six coupons that get me free items, I’ll get what I need and donate the rest,” Gonser said. “But I’m not going to go to the extreme to obtain hundreds of coupons.

“It’s not real.”

Use up, but not extreme

Local grocery stores aren’t seeing coupon users like those featured on the TLC show, said the manager of Fargo’s Cash Wise and the president of Hornbacher’s.

One reason may be a Midwestern mentality that doesn’t promote excess or greediness, said Matt Leiseth, Hornbacher’s president.

Leiseth also says that while grocery stores in this region have long doubled coupons up to a dollar, this hasn’t always been the case in other parts of the country. Now more stores elsewhere are doubling to drive traffic, which has led to some of the crazier couponing behavior, he says.

“We don’t see anybody to that extreme,” Leiseth says of “Extreme Couponing.” “There are very good couponers in our store, but not to that extreme.”

Leiseth said these “good couponers” match weekly ad specials to manufacturer coupons to increase their markdown. They “go from spending $50 on a cart to $30. That’s a pretty savvy shopper,” he said.

Shoppers saved $3.7 billion with coupons in 2010, according to a January report from NCH Marketing Services Inc., a Valassis company. Valassis is a media and marketing services company that owns RedPlum, a ubiquitous coupon publication brand and website.

The report found the dollar amount saved in 2010 was a 5.7 percent increase from 2009. And in 2010, marketers distributed a record 332 billion packaged goods coupons, exceeding the 2009 record by 6.8 percent. Redemption volume in the U.S. grew 3.1 percent to 3.3 billion coupons in 2010, the report said.

The survey found that 78.3 percent of consumers regularly use coupons in 2010. This figure has increased steadily each year since the U.S. economy soured. In 2007, 63.6 percent of consumers reported regularly using coupons.

Tim Rhode, manager of the Cash Wise store in Fargo, noted an increase in customer coupon usage beginning with the economic downturn, which he says influenced more than just coupon usage.

“I think customers have changed how they shop; they’re a little more money conscious,” Rhode said.

He sees customers choosing less expensive cuts of meat and shopping the ad, paying more attention to items that are on sale.

Effect on retailers

Increased coupon use does affect a store’s bottom line, as the store absorbs the cost of doubling the coupon, Leiseth says.

“It’s an internal cost for us,” Leiseth says, noting that doubling gives shoppers an incentive to use those manufacturer coupons at that retailer.

Stores also need to be more vigilant about coupon frauds and schemes, especially with the rise of printable Internet coupons, Leiseth says.

Locally, neither Cash Wise nor Hornbacher’s has changed their coupon policies, Rhode and Leiseth said. Officials with SunMart Foods would not comment for this article.

Target posted modifications to its coupon policy online in June. The modifications were not process or technology changes, said spokeswoman Erika Winkels, but an effort to be more transparent. Sections were added to explain the chain’s policies on print-at-home, mobile and buy-one-get-one coupons, as well as exclusions.

Target has seen an increase in coupon usage over the past several years, but updating the policy online was not a direct result of that, Winkels said. “All we wanted to do was be more transparent and explicit with our language,” she said.

Walgreens put its coupon policy online in the fall of 2010 but hasn’t changed it. The chain has also seen an increased use of coupons because of the economy, said Robert Elfinger, corporate spokesman.

CVS Pharmacy occasionally puts limits on promotions, allowing more customers to take advantage of the offers, spokeswoman Erin Pensa said in a statement.

Smarter coupons?

While things haven’t changed drastically at local stores, they may soon. Leiseth thinks often about how smartphone technology will change things. Many consumers will store coupons on their phones. He believes this will help reduce coupon misuse, as well.

“It’s only a matter of time that we get into electronic couponing,” Leiseth says. “I get excited about that because of the convenience we can offer customers.”

Until then, people like Gonser and her fellow couponers will continue to swap and sort their little paper slips of savings. She occasionally sees eye rolls and hears comments like “Oh, you’re one of those.”

“There is somewhat of a negative perception (of people using a lot of coupons), and I think the (TLC) show has brought a little bit out,” Gonser says.

Trying to show the good couponing can do, Gonser recently organized a drive to collect couponed items for flood victims in the Minot area. Her website readers donated pantry and personal care items worth about $2,000 in retail prices, Gonser said.

“Of course, that’s not what we paid,” she added.


Couponing do’s & don’ts

- Do play by the rules. Brush up on coupon policies before you shop. Make sure you’re buying the item the coupon is intended for, and check to see if the store will accept expired coupons.

Don’t clear the shelf. In the eyes of casual shoppers, clearing entire shelves of popular sale items crosses the line between couponing and hoarding.

Do be organized. Clip coupons before you check out and make sure they’re all facing the same direction. Remove coupons for products you didn’t buy.

Don’t shop during the busiest times. It takes the pressure off to complete the transaction as quickly as possible for both you and the cashier.

Do be polite to the cashier and fellow customers. If a cashier isn’t familiar with coupon policies, stay calm and ask to speak with a supervisor. When your cart is overflowing, give those behind you a heads up that you’ll be using coupons. If someone just has a loaf of bread and gallon of milk, let them cut ahead.

Don’t steal coupons.

Newspapers and newspaper subscribers are increasingly finding coupon inserts stolen. This can get you into serious trouble. Many people will willingly part with their unused inserts if you ask nicely.

Source: Andrea Woroch, consumer savings expert, Kinoli Inc.

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