With prices rising, coupon clipping is suddenly hip
Posted by Zachary Lewis May 01, 2008 14:43PM
As the nation's economy flirts with recession, consumers are again committing to clipping coupons, setting aside time and old stigmas in an effort to save money.
Newspaper inserts remain the biggest source of discounts for most consumers at a time when food and fuel prices are steadily rising. But the popularity of paperless coupons also is growing, and retail loyalty and rewards programs are seeing waves of new users.
"People have just had enough of high prices," said Debbie Young, founder of Northeast Ohio Couponers, a Web-based group of bargain-hunters. "It's playing havoc with everyone's financial situation, big time."
Evidence of a coupon renaissance is everywhere, ranging from the anecdotal to the scientific.
Start with the latter: the Association of Coupon Professionals cites a study by North Carolina-based coupon processor CSM showing U.S. shoppers redeemed 2.6 billion coupons in 2007, same as in 2006. That's the first time in 16 years coupon redemption has not dropped from one year to the next, the group said.
In a recent article in the trade journal Supermarket News, John Morgan, executive director of the ACP, predicted the trend would continue into 2008. "Historically, coupon distribution and redemption increase during difficult economic times," he said.
Recent surveys by Columbus-based BIGresearch show 37 percent of adults planning to use more coupons, and 63 percent unwilling to make a purchase without a deal attached.
In Greater Cleveland, coupon usage has remained higher than the national average for several years, according to studies Scarborough Research did for The Plain Dealer. The same company also found that most coupon users get their coupons from newspapers.
One of the clearest signs of the coupon times in Northeast Ohio is attendance in bargain-hunting classes offered by Joe "The Coupon Guy" Daugirdas, a coupon user extraordinaire in Willoughby. Daugirdas said his classes, most of which are free but require registration, have been overflowing lately, to the point where he's been asked to offer two classes in one location and put visitors on a waiting list.
"Just from attendance and the comments, you can tell people are having a harder time making ends meet," he said. "Most of the classes are booking solid, every one I go to. People really latch on to what I'm passing along."
Finally, there's membership in Northeast Ohio Couponers. Young said the ranks of her once-small group have swelled in the past few months, crossing the 3,000 mark.
At the same time, Young said, the group is growing more active, with members organizing coupon-trading sessions more frequently. "We've had to widen our doors . . . and our trading has gone way up. I see this directly related to the price of gas."
Gasoline certainly was one big reason why Joy Shaffer of Manchester joined the group and started clipping coupons recently.
Although struggling under credit card debt, Shaffer had shied away from coupons, telling herself she lacked the time required to clip and organize them. As a result, she said, she shopped "haphazardly," throwing whatever she wanted into her cart at the grocery without thinking.
Then gas and other staples started getting more expensive, and as Shaffer looked for ways to economize, groceries emerged as one category in which she could realize significant savings. Now the wife and mother of two uses coupons avidly, proudly saving 50 to 70 percent a week.
"That is not small change, and I am not embarrassed," she said. "I'm getting out of debt one coupon at a time."
Louanne Sullivan of Mentor is another recent convert. She joined the Couponers in November, after discovering coupons could help her shave 50 percent or more off her weekly grocery bill.
Now someone who once viewed a 25-cent coupon as not worth clipping takes her coupon organizer with her everywhere she goes.
"When the economy was better, a quarter was nothing," Sullivan said. "There was no big incentive. Now, it's a big deal. It makes good sense to do what we do."
But coupons aren't the only big incentives out there. As the economy tightens and shoppers grow more bargain-conscious, loyalty programs rewarding regular customers also are proliferating.
Roberto Guerrieri, co-founder of Incentive Logic, a company that manages rewards programs, said the number of companies launching such programs through Incentive is up 10 percent on the year, while overall participation by shoppers is up nearly 50 percent.
He said that's because businesses hit hard by the economy are looking for ways to retain their penny-pinched clientele. And it's not just retailers.
"When the economy gets softer, loyalty programs get more important," he said. "Companies start valuing their current customers more. We're seeing it in just about every industry now."
These days, paper coupons no longer come just from publications. The Internet is loaded with coupon clearinghouses, sites allowing visitors to search for and print their own coupons. They, too, are seeing increased traffic.
Jonathan Schafer, chief executive and co-founder of HeyButler.com, a newly launched coupon site with headquarters in Independence, said his site had 20,000 unique visitors last month, higher than expected. Not only that, visitors returned to the site more often than before and spent more time there.
"People are more regularly coming back to visit because of the economy," Schafer said. "People are looking to stretch their dollars more. . . . They're looking for ways to save on a bunch of different deals."
Beneath the renewed popularity of coupons, a subtle but profound shift appears to have taken place: Whereas coupon usage used to be a sign of miserliness, now it's evidence of intelligence.
"The Coupon Guy" Daugirdas takes that notion one step further. Beyond merely accepted, coupons are actually hip, he said.
"It's the cool thing to do now. It's mainstream."