Coupon Science: Fact or Fiction?

Coupons are a mainstay of the frugal household; they are a tangible and common-sensical approach to saving dollars and cents on common household items, food, and even restaurant meals. Frugal shoppers and mindful money savers often boast about their coupon successes on boards and forums online, and share their best stories of almost-free and grocery discounts on recent trips. Tips and tricks include ‘coupon doubling’, watching for sales on specific items in circulars, and even exchanging and bidding on popular brands on eBay. The most savvy coupon redeemers have this pursuit down to a science, and pride themselves on the money saved.

Money saved, or money made at your expense? In an attempt to understand the effect on coupons and buying habits, let’s turn to the company’s perspective of distribution. . .

Coupons first made their debut in America in 1894, where the druggist who bought the formula for Coca-Cola gave away tickets for a free glass of this now-branded beverage. Grocery store coupons were introduced by C.W. Post for 1 cent off of a box of Grape Nuts, in 1895. The Depression era bought coupon clipping to new heights in the 1930s, as saving money was a high priority for all. As supermarkets increased, and retail shopping became a part of consumer culture over the next few decades, the rise of coupons became apparent in the late 1970s. Since then, clipping coupons has become a favored pursuit of housewives, children, and money-conscious consumers. In fact, September was named National Coupon Month in 1999.

Companies distribute coupons for a variety of reasons; they are attempting to introduce a new product; they are trying to increase sales of a particular brand or product; they are looking to capture the niche market of frequent coupon clippers; or, they are highlighting their brand amongst the competition. Now, these are all successful business strategies; they all cater to the consumer, and encourage the purchase of a particular item.

What it does to the consumer, is quite interesting. For one, it creates the choice of brand, before the customer even enters the store. This is huge. Marketing departments do extensive research on consumer buying behavior to find out the exact point that a consumer picks one brand over another; is it shelf placement, is it a direct advertisement, word of mouth, when is it? When you, as a consumer, choose to use that coupon, your decision has already been made. The psychological gratification of simply using the coupon is enough to encourage the purchase, oftentimes regardless of the need, or a comparable purchase. Combine an in-store sale, and you have a definite choice; a customer is likely to buy the brand again if they like it, and now have a positive purchase feeling associated with the brand or product in question.

Let’s take a look at the emotions involved here. Not only are you seeking out the money-saving opportunity (gratification #1), you are making a ‘sensible’ choice because you are saving the indicated dollar/cents amount on the coupon (gratification #2), you get to watch the total purchase at the checkout go down as the coupons are scanned (gratification #3), and you can come home ‘knowing’ you spent less than you would have without the coupon (gratification #4). Four very real instances to feel the positive emotions of buying. Four very real instances to be a happy buyer, something not easy to find for any consumer who goes through an extensive cost-benefit thought process at every avenue and department of the store. The coupon-use process not only cuts down your process for you, it encourages a subsequent process. And so the cycle continues.

Soon, coupon clipping leads to more coupon clipping; sourcing and finding coupons overcomes the actual need of any particular product. Although it gives consumers the chance to try and sample new products they wouldn’t ‘normally’ buy, many are so far gone they simply rely on coupons to just buy what has been , well, predetermined. Forget about actual shopping lists, real food that comes from the perimeter of the store where the nutritional and fresh food is. Coupons are available for all brands, non-generic, processed, and usually higher priced items. Saving money in the long-run? Unlikely. For the amount of time it takes to source, find, evaluate, and carry out the purchase, most consumers are better off creating a list, checking for sale priced items while in the store, and trusting that the average purchase will be consistent over a period of time, and not necessarily trip by trip.

This is a difficult mentality to realize in today’s ‘sale’ and coupon culture. It’s a step that involves some serious thinking about what is actually consumed, needed, and found in a given store. Coupons are a marketing tool; they are an effort to increase purchases, and simultaneously increase subsequent purchases and perhaps additional purchases of other items in a given trip; simply put, the consumer now feels that they have ‘saved’ money.

Realistically speaking, make a list, stick with it, and use coupons as a ‘freebie’, not the reason for that trip to the store! Marketing is best when it is inadvertent; think about how much advertising you expose yourself to in the simple process and act of coupon hunting. Think about how many brands you are conveniently ‘introduced’ to by monitoring those circulars, eBay auctions, and sales across stores.

Is it worth it?

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