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Monday, May 03, 2010

The coupons remembered best are the ones you did not have

By Dick Hirsch

The numbers have been crunched and re-crunched and now the data files and ledger sheets are complete and ready for public consumption: far more cents off coupons were redeemed in 2009 than the previous year.

This should not some as a major surprise since the economy, while showing occasional positive signs, is still sluggish. Furthermore, almost every one knows someone who has lost a job due to downsizing.

So, in bad times, the number of coupons used increases. The biggest in history for coupon use was the recession year of 1992 when 7.9 billion were redeemed. That’s lot of cents off. The number is more impressive when used in full, not abbreviated. For those who paid little attention in math class, this is 7,900,000,000.

After that banner year, there was a downturn in coupon use, directly related to better business conditions. Coupons were still popular with advertisers, but consumers were less likely to bother with them. The steady decline continued through 2008, but usage recovered in 2009 with the redemption of 3.5 billion coupons for various products. That was an increase of 27 percent over the previous year.

At our house we use our share of coupons, but experience has shown me that the coupons you remember the best are the ones you did not have. To be devoid of a coupon and notice that you are surrounded by other customers with coupons can be a upsetting experience. No, it isn’t painful but, if you are a coupon user, it raises serious questions about your perspicacity, if you know what I mean.

We had such an experience last year while dining for the first time in a restaurant that had been highly recommended by some friends. It was very enjoyable; the food was excellent, the service was professional and the overall ambiance was admirable. Just as I was finishing my chicken I noticed a transaction being conducted at a nearby table. With dinner complete, the waitress was handed a slip of paper by the diner. Oh, no, I thought, he has a coupon and we didn’t know...

There is no reason for me to dwell on that dispiriting interlude. Let’s just say we enjoyed the meal, but it would have tasted better if we had one of those coupons, which I later learned were pegged at a maximum of $15. As the old saying goes, caveat emptor...let the buyer beware.

Generally speaking, however, we have enjoyed many good experiences with coupons, most of which we still clip from the Sunday paper. I realize that is old style couponing, with more and more advertisers distributing their coupons through the Internet. That phase of the coupon business is growing at an astounding rate; during one six month period in 2009 over 10 million digital coupons were redeemed, according to Inmar, a coupon processing company that furnished the figures used in this column.

You probably know that many people spend a great deal of time collecting coupons, keeping them in a envelope, and then trying to find them once it is their turn at the checkout lane. I admire those people for their diligent work, but it can be maddening to another shopper watching them shuffle through their packet trying to find the proper ones to hand to the cashier.

I once had a redeeming experience with one of those coupon users, a woman I did not know. She saw me in the cereal aisle, studying the display, apparently attempting to decide which to select. She just handed me a coupon good for 50 cents, and said it was an extra as she walked away, pushing her loaded cart. It was one of those manufacturer’s coupons, the store was doubling, so ut saved me a dollar. I was touched by that experience and happened to mention it in a column. A few days later I received a note including a few coupons for toothpaste, cereal and detergent from a woman I knew slightly. “There is no need for you to rely on the generosity of strangers,” she wrote. That convinced me that coupon users are generous, willing to share the spares in their collection.

I have always wondered whether wealthy people used coupons. I once saw a reputedly rich man while we were both collecting deposits on soda cans, yet there are many others who don’t bother. Thus, I can report that the answer is “yes” and “no.” The rich seem to be like the rest of us. Some do and some don’t.



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