March 24, 2013

The great coupon debate

A double-digit drop in the number of coupons used in 2012 might be a fluke. Or not.

By AMY DUNN McClatchy Newspapers

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Coupn drop
click image to enlarge

Coupons are sorted as the Savvy Savers Coupon Clippers gather in Garner, N.C., to swap their unwanted coupons for ones they want or need.

McClatchy Newspapers

"It got to be too overwhelming. It got to be where I was dreading it, cutting coupons and matching them to lists," she said. "I started to kind of realize, 'OK, is it worth my time?'" But that doesn't mean Morton has abandoned her search for deals.

She now does a lot of her shopping at the no-frills grocery chain, Aldi, where most of the products are store-brand and coupons aren't accepted. She hits Harris Teeter for the best of the coupon deals.

Citing the competitive nature of their business, manufacturers wouldn't discuss their coupon offerings. Jeff LeRoy, a representative for Procter & Gamble, declined to comment. "We consider coupon redemption information proprietary," he said in an emailed statement.

Likewise, grocery chains don't like to comment on coupon redemption. Harris Teeter would not comment beyond saying its coupon programs are popular.

PAPER COUPONS ON THE WAY OUT?

Heather George, vice president of brand strategy at Lowes Foods, acknowledged a dip in redemption but not as severe as the reported nationwide decline. She said Lowes Foods numbers were better because of its policy of offering every-day double coupons and occasional special coupon events.

Phil Lempert, a consumer analyst known as the Supermarket Guru, said he thinks the discussion about coupon expiration dates and lower coupon values, while valid, misses the point.

He argues that paper coupons, in particular, are an outmoded way of delivering deals to consumers, pointing out that only about 1 percent of all coupons are redeemed – even in a good year.

A contributing editor to Supermarket News, Lempert is the keynote speaker at the Association of Coupon Professionals annual meeting in New Orleans next month. He forecasts continuing drops in paper coupon redemption.

"We'll continue to see people empowered to save money but not the way it used to be," he said. "Look at how quickly we left our records, cassettes and CDs. When's the last time you wrote a real letter?

"Our smartphones are running our lives."

Lempert plans to be blunt in his keynote speech. "When you drop 17 percent in one year, you're like the Titanic," Lempert said. "You better get the lifeboats out or be ready to go down."

PREDICTIONS HARD TO MAKE

The sudden drop in coupon redemption has been felt by small companies that have sprouted up in recent years to capitalize on the coupon craze.

"Our business dropped by about 50 percent from 2011 to 2012," said Mindy Weschler, an Apex mother who runs TheCouponPro.com, shipping three-ring binders, plastic pages and dividers across the country. She's not optimistic for 2013.

Weschler, who also sells coupon supplies at The News & Observer coupon classes, started selling coupon organizers out of her home in 2009 and had a hard time keeping up with demand. She saw her online business grow to the point where she had to lease space to store her inventory. At the end of the month, she'll be moving the business back home.

"This was not our livelihood, so we're very fortunate in that respect," Weschler said. "It's sad but you've just got to roll with the trends."

Brown, the coupon clearinghouse executive, said his company doesn't forecast coupon trends. But he did say he suspects manufacturers would be "adjusting the dial" on their coupon offerings for 2013.

Based on his company's most recent consumer survey, he said consumers will continue to clip and save. Nearly 80 percent said they use coupons "always," "very often" or "sometimes." That number has remained steady over the last several years.

Jackie Warrick, the president of CouponCabin.com, an online site that compiles coupons and coupon codes on everything from groceries to the latest electronic gadgets, said she believes coupon savings are here to stay, although perhaps in different forms.

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