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Saturday, July 09, 2011

Saving money becomes a full time job

By Dick Hirsch

There are some debates which are not worth expending the energy that participation requires. It’s better to relax on the sidelines, either nodding in agreement or privately groaning in disbelief. The issue that recently confronted me really wasn’t a debate. It was an argument, but no matter how it was classified it wasn’t worth the effort.

It involved the proper pronunciation of the word coupon. Everyone agrees that the word is spelled c-o-u-p-o-n. But there are two absolutely distinct schools of thought on the articulation of the spoken word. Many people---probably the majority---insist on saying “cue-pon,” while claiming that as the preferred way of speaking. Their “cou-” sounds like what a director gives an actor. Meanwhile a sizable number of contrarians are convinced the best way of saying it is “koo-pon,” with a softer “koo” as in coo-coo clock.

With so many ongoing disputes at home and abroad, would you believe that otherwise well-balanced adults would be spending time debating or arguing about that? It happens. I was a witness, not a participant. Soon the French heritage of the word coupon was being cited by both sides as evidence in their favor. There was no verdict and no agreement, so the matter remains unsettled and the participants remain friends and will continue pronouncing the word as they please.

Can you guess what prompted that discussion?

Yes, it was the proliferation of coupons drifting around us, now in greater volume than ever before. The printed coupon dominated for years, with people either saving those received as part of a promotion, or else targeting those that required clipping from a newspaper or advertising brochure. There were always far more coupons published than redeemed. If all the coupons issued had been redeemed the companies would have created a terrible mess, a situation which could have been described as a successful promotion that resulted in failure. 

That was then. This is now: advertisers using the Internet have been accelerating their efforts to distribute an endless array of electronic coupons. It is a new era for coupons. There are so many opportunities for coupon use as well as new styles of coupons that what was once a simple matter has now become much more complex. Newspapers were a primary a vehicle for the distribution of coupons, published as part of ads. But every aspect of the newspaper business has been under sustained attack from the competitive electronic media. That includes coupon deals, which are now promoted by radio, television and Internet, especially the Internet. Until recently the Buffalo News often published a lengthy headline atop page one trumpeting the supposed total dollar value of coupons the paper had published that week.

Eventually the paper decided to get into the Internet coupon business itself, creating a web site business called Sweet Find, patterned after successful nationwide Internet businesses such as Groupon. The consumer pays the promoter, such as Sweet Find, a bargain fee via e-mail and receives a voucher by e-mail in return. I tried it once. It worked. I paid $20 for a restaurant voucher worth $40 and enjoyed the meal.

Maybe it is just a fad but the number of price buyers must be growing and discount pricing seems to appeal to buyers of every financial status. I have always wondered whether wealthy persons redeemed coupons, and I suppose the obvious answer is that some do and some don’t. However, I have a friend, a man of substantial wealth, who occasionally wears a favorite T-shirt with this question printed on the front: “Does that include my senior citizen discount?” I never asked but I believe coupons are used on his family shopping trips.

The first coupons were distributed to promote Coca-Cola in the late 19th century. For me the most interesting history relates to C. W. Post, the cereal magnate. In 1909 Post started marketing his new cereal using a coupon that entitled the bearer to a one cent saving on the purchase of a box of Grape-Nuts. Post was competing with hot breakfast foods and introduced Grape-Nuts as a healthy alternative.

Apparently it worked because over a century later the brand is still being marketed to those who like the taste of the chewy granules. I confess that I’ve always found Grape-Nuts more appealing when I have a coupon. As a matter of policy, I rarely venture down the cereal aisle in a buying mode at any supermarket without a coupon.


At 9:03 AM, Blogger Ethan Smith said...

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