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Super-Couponing: Who uses coupons? Anwer may surprise you

Jill Cataldo

Did you know that the heaviest users of coupons make more than $70,000 per year? According to studies by Nielsen Co., those who use coupons the least earn less than $20,000 per year.

Why don’t lower-income people use coupons? Is there a stigma to using coupons that prevents some people from using them?

Actually, there is. There’s a widespread belief among the non-coupon set that “only poor people use coupons.” Of course, according to Nielsen studies, the opposite is true. Some people, though, are genuinely afraid of appearing “poor” in the checkout lane. They don’t want someone to think they must be enduring financial hardship.

In Super-Couponing workshops, I often hear stories from readers who say they have been “shamed” in the checkout lane of a grocery store. One woman was watching the cashier scan her large pile of coupons and the couple standing behind her turned to each other and said, “Remember when we had to use coupons a few years ago?” As if having to use coupons is somehow embarrassing! Another shopper, a father with a baby, stood in the lane handing coupons to the cashier and heard a woman behind him comment, “I know how much you must be struggling, having to use all those coupons.” She handed him a $20 bill and patted him on the shoulder!

Fortunately, both shoppers took the patronizing comments in stride – and made sure to point out that they were choosing to use coupons, not forced to. But stories like these suggest that some people perceive coupon shoppers as needy. And the idea that someone, anyone, may assume you’re poor if you use coupons is enough to deter some people from even considering picking up a pair of scissors. Now, that’s the real shame!

Cultural attitudes may play a part, too. After teaching a coupon workshop in Spanish to a Spanish-speaking audience, I learned from the people in the class that there are strong, preconceived notions about coupons within some Hispanic communities. One 20-something college student told me that her mother equated coupon use to food stamps: “Mama was so mad that I was going to a coupon class!”

Manufacturers are working to break down some of these notions and attract Spanish-speaking audiences. SmartSource has issued its newspaper coupon insert in both Spanish and English and General Mills publishes a free, quarterly Spanish magazine called “Que Rica Vida” filled with recipes and coupons.

Lack of Internet access is another barrier to couponing. While anyone can clip coupons, the heaviest users turn to the Internet to maximize savings. They utilize printable coupons and electronic coupons that can be loaded online to shoppers’ cards. They rely on grocery list “match-up” websites that offer the easy ways to plan a shopping trip and craft a grocery list reflecting the best deals of the week and which coupons to use to get the lowest prices. If you’re looking for more information on any of these tools, visit http://www.supercouponing.com and click “Getting Started” for links to many popular printable coupon, electronic coupon and match-up sites.

The coupon enthusiasts I know are savvy shoppers who know the very best prices for the products they buy. They’re experts at spotting a deal and they’re not put off by any so-called “stigma” about using coupons. And, they realize that using coupons is a smart, even fun way to keep more of the money they earn in their wallets.

Q: “I know about the ethics of point-of-sale coupon pads, and how shoppers shouldn’t take more than they can reasonably use. Here is a hypothetical version of a similar situation. Your family loves Cereal X. A supermarket ad has it listed for a terrific price; it’s such a great deal that you’re ready to stock up. At the store, you find just six boxes of the cereal on the shelf. Without knowing if the store has any more in the stockroom, do you buy all six or do you leave some for other customers?”

A: I’m asked this question often. As a coupon shopper, I do stock up during great sales. So, would I consider myself a “shelf-clearer”? It’s never my intention to clear the shelves at any store, although, as this reader points out, when there’s a great sale going on smart shoppers who spot the deal may wipe out the store’s stock before the sale ends, especially if the store didn’t anticipate demand for a particular product.

Any time I speak with a group of coupon shoppers, it quickly becomes clear that when it comes to great sales, there are two camps in the world of couponing. Some feel that shopping is a “first come, first served” situation. Others believe shoppers should buy in moderation and leave some behind for other shoppers.

To me, a shelf-clearer is someone who will buy a disproportionately large quantity of an item, more than they’ll likely use any time soon – 20 or more of the same item comes to mind. There’s a difference between buying a reasonable number of products and buying everything in sight.

If, in the above example, I want to buy six boxes of cereal and there are only six boxes left on the shelf, I will likely buy them even if they’re the last six in the store. My logic is this: if it’s a particularly hot item, there’s not much difference if I buy four and leave two (which will be snapped up by the next shopper, leaving the shelf bare) or just buy six (also leaving the shelf bare.) Stores often receive stock several times a week. While these may be the last six boxes of this particular cereal at this time, tomorrow night the shelves could be full again.

Understand, too, that if a product takes up a lot of space on the shelf, it also doesn’t take many shoppers to clear it out completely.

I do find it interesting that when the shelves are empty during a great sale, shoppers blame other shoppers. I look at the other side of the equation. Why didn’t the store anticipate that the products in question would move quickly off the shelves? Stores know well in advance what their sales will be, though they tend not to look at these ads through the same eyes as a coupon shopper. When stores are better prepared to anticipate what shoppers will buy during a great sale, they can try to order enough stock to meet demand. The flip side of this is that stores also don’t want to over buy, and be stuck with too much of a particular item.

When all else fails, though, don’t forget to get a rain check. Many stores offer rain checks, which will ensure you can buy the item at the same price (usually for the next 30 days) once it’s back in stock.

Q: “I have been trying to cut my grocery bill with your advice on coupon shopping. For some reason, I never find any of the great deals you refer to. I normally shop at a national everyday-low-price supercenter. Please help me. It is so frustrating to hear about all these savings that I am not getting.”

A: Many shoppers believe they’ll save more money shopping at an “everyday low price” (ELP) store versus a traditional supermarket. ELP stores work hard to market themselves as less-expensive alternatives. They proclaim loudly “We are cheaper!” But are they?

It’s true that prices are not too high at an everyday low price store. They’re also not too low.

An ELP store prices its products at a middle-of-the-road level. Unlike a traditional supermarket, it does not cycle prices from week to week. You might call a traditional supermarket a “high/low” store. On any day, about half the products at the supermarket will be priced higher than what you might find at the ELP store. But the other half of the products will be priced lower. Savvy coupon shoppers watch price fluctuations at supermarkets, then move in with coupons to get even lower prices.

I rarely shop for groceries in ELP stores. Their prices simply do not dip low enough to beat the prices I can get up at a supermarket. Before writing this column, I visited a supermarket and an everyday low price store for a price check on some national brands. Here’s what I found:

o 64-ounce bottle of grape juice: $3 supermarket / $3.49 ELP store

o 32-ounce bottle of laundry detergent: $3.99 supermarket / $4.97 ELP store

o 14.5-ounce box of honey granola cereal: $1.49 supermarket / $2.97 ELP store

The supermarket beat the ELP store, hands down. The cereal is $3.99 when it’s not on sale. But why would I want to buy it when it’s not on sale? If I simply wait for the supermarket sale and stock up when it comes, I will save a great deal of money even without using coupons.

There are other factors to consider, too. Many supermarkets use check-out devices, popularized by Catalina Marketing, that print out coupons good for money off your next shopping trip. On my comparison-shopping trip, my supermarket offered a $1 Catalina for the grape juice. With a $1 coupon, I paid $2 and got $1 back. The cost of the juice to me was just $1. But at the supercenter, even with my coupon I would have paid $2.49 – more than twice the price for the same bottle of juice!

There was a similar deal on the detergent. The supermarket offered a $1.25 Catalina for buying it. With coupon, I paid $2.99 and got $1.25 back, making the final price just $1.74 – again, less than half the price I would have paid at the supercenter.

Back to the cereal. My supermarket offered a $6 Catalina for buying 5 or more boxes. Without any coupons, 5 boxes would cost me $7.45 and I’d get $6 back with the Catalina. Now, $1.45 for 5 boxes of cereal is already a deal… but with two coupons offering $1 off for the purchase of 2 boxes, I paid $5.45 and got $6 back. The supermarket “paid” me 55 cents to take that cereal home!

As a student in one of my Super-Couponing classes recently said, “You couldn’t pay me to shop anywhere other than my favorite supermarket … because they do!”

• Copyright CTW. Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her website, http://www.supercouponing.com.