Running With Scissors

15 09 2011

I remember when I was still in grad school, a relative newlywed. Money was tight and so were we. Because we had to be. We clipped coupons, not because it was fun, but because it helped us save a few quarters here and there. We raced to the breakfast table with the Sunday paper, scissors in hand.

Noodles and pasta were (and are still) cheap, so every coupon could nearly pay for another evening meal. The influence of my accountant father played a big role in our survival strategies.

But as we moved on from grad school to our professional lives, scrimping became less of an issue. We joined the vast majority of Americans in ignoring coupons. What was the worry if the payback of trading a Sunday morning with scissors if it netted you only $10?

Before the current recession, it was quite common that only about 2% of all coupons were redeemed in the US. Sure, part of this may have been because the discounted product did not meet needs or wants. But I suspected it had more to do with our collective affluence than anything. Clipping coupons took on the same social stigma as does riding the bus in Amarillo. “Wait. There’s mass transit in Amarillo?” you ask.)

And since we all know (insert sarcasm here) that only poor people and convicted drunks ride the bus, we avoided coupons like the plague.

My, how a recession and a reality show can change everything.

Whereas you couldn’t get most people to ever ‘fess up to using a coupon, we have now reached the point at which extreme couponing has produced blowback.

I have read the Facebook status updates of extreme coupon clippers. I have seen the articles, the TV news reports, even the TV show. It may be hard to believe, but coupons have become a contact sport, with people stealing Sunday newspapers (with their dozens of prized offers). “Forget that shiny bike you left on the driveway. I want your newspaper.”

Worse yet, some shoppers are schlepping several over-flowing carts through the store, and then making others wait behind them while the poor clerk has to ring up everything, only to reduce the bill to a buck or two. The implicit message is that we lazy spectators are to applaud the savvy shopper for a job well done.

Some stores are fighting back by limiting the number and/or value of coupons they will accept, or limiting quantities. I don’t blame them. Coupons and related promotional offers are intended to be inducements to shop, not an invitation to battle. They are a sweetener, not a subsidy, and not an opportunity to turn basements into grocery warehouses.

But that has happened anyway.

The questions are, how long will this craziness last after the recession is over? And will there still be marauding bands of competitive shoppers once the TV show has run its course?

Geez, I hope not.

I do not mind coupons at all, but I cannot remember the last time I used one. I don’t mind the person in front of me redeeming a few. But I do mind it when I have the misfortune of getting in line behind the Coupon Queen or King. I just don’t like standing downwind of a smug shopper hell bent on exiting the store with a month’s worth of free groceries.

Coupons were never intended to be food stamps. And, in a twisted kind of way, a marketer’s tool has become the weapon that may very well kill him.

Enough already.

Dr “No Cash Value” Gerlich

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