"Extreme Couponing" is back.
The second season of the TLC cable TV show with its over-the-top coupon shopping trips and shoppers with enormous, house-filling stockpiles premiered last month. Almost immediately, shoppers from around the country filled my inbox with questions.
"Have you seen 'Extreme Couponing?' Is it real?"
"Why haven't you taught readers how to do extreme couponing like on that show?"
While "Extreme Couponing" is considered a reality TV show, it's important to understand that what you see on the show is entertainment, not reality. You and I will never easily duplicate the level of savings shoppers achieve on the show for a simple reason. Some of the stores where the extreme shopping trips are filmed don't play by the same rules they enforce for the rest of their customers.
In the season premiere, a shopper told of her goal to feed a bargain-priced lunch to her church's parishioners. She purchased 60 bags of salad and 100 boxes of pasta that were on sale for $1 each. She used 50-cent coupons that the store doubled in value to $1, so she took home all the items free.
The problem is, the store featured in this episode doesn't double coupons. At least, not for anyone else.
As soon as the episode aired, coupon savings forums lit up with comments from shoppers familiar with Bello's Market, the family-owned grocery store in Erie, Pa. where the segment was filmed. These shoppers shared the same outrage: "Hey, that store doesn't double coupons!"
I called Jim Bello, the owner, and asked if it was his store's policy to double coupons for shoppers.
"It was not the policy to do this," he said. "We normally don't double, but we did double for them, because it was for the church."
During the last season of "Extreme Couponing," a Kroger-owned store in Arizona got in trouble with shoppers after it dispensed with its usual policy and doubled coupons for the TV show. After shoppers complained, the store released a statement saying, "The show was done for promotional purposes."
Jim Bello has received his share of calls from disgruntled regulars. "I've gotten a couple of really nasty phone calls about this, asking if we double coupons now," he said. "We're independent, we can't afford to. Grocery stores here really don't double."
Unfortunately, the list of stores that will bend rules for the shopping trips depicted on "Extreme Couponing" gets longer by the day. Lowes Foods, Winston-Salem, N.C., issued an online apology after allowing "Extreme Couponing" to film in two of its stores. The store acknowledged that it had waived limits of its coupon policy for the benefit of the cameras.
"While we can not undo our participation in the taping of 'Extreme Couponing,' what we can do is share with you our reason for doing so and some truths that will not be aired with the show. Lowes Foods agreed to allow the taping in our store... to show viewers that we are a coupon-friendly grocer with outstanding products and customer service. Some of what appears in the clip you saw was staged by the production company... We definitely made a poor decision by participating in the show."
This season, just as in the last, viewers are noticing that shoppers on the show appear to misuse coupons. Using coupons for one product to buy a completely different one is fraud. Most stores do not allow shoppers to get away with this dishonest practice. But, when the cameras roll, many stores that participate on the show appear to turn a blind eye, pushing these coupons through so that the shopper can "save" even more money.
When stores acknowledge that they, too, bend and break the rules in order to create the made-for-TV illusion of remarkable savings, "Extreme Couponing" is about as far from reality as you can get. The truth is, the show undermines honest couponers and stores that play by the rules.