Coupons are popular again with more ways to save — and sometimes bigger savings — thanks to social networking, new technologies and a new generation of tech-savvy shoppers. Here's how one shopper got into couponing and some Web links to get you started.
DETROIT — Nicole Baron didn’t see herself as the coupon type. And besides, as a part-time teacher and mother of two young children, she didn’t think she had time to clip and file little pieces of paper and check sales at a half-dozen stores.
But now she’s hooked on getting her kids’ favorite yogurt for free, stocking her laundry room with name-brand detergent for 99 cents a bottle and paying $2.88 for $23.02 worth of products at Target, as she did last week — using coupons.
“I haven’t paid for children’s toothpaste or toothbrushes since I started this” a year ago, said Baron, 34, of Macomb Township, Mich.
She’s one of millions of American shoppers who discovered couponing in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, fueling the resurgence of an industry that had been declining or flat for a decade.
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Coupon redemptions shot up 27 percent to 3.3 billion in 2009, according to industry giant Inmar, which tracks and reports coupon use nationwide. And in 2010 — with the recession supposedly over, but business still stagnant — redemptions stayed steady at 3.3 billion.
Coupons are back to stay, industry officials say. The recession was so painful, they believe, it permanently changed spending habits, and consumers will continue snipping, organizing and redeeming the vouchers even after household budgets and the economy recover.
Only time will tell, but what is clear is that couponing itself is quickly and dramatically changing in the face of new technologies, social networking and a new generation of tech-savvy shoppers. And those changes — regardless of economic conditions — could eventually make coupons easier and more convenient for consumers.
The shift occurring within the industry pits traditional free standing paper advertising inserts such as RedPlum and SmartSource — delivered in Sunday newspapers or to home mailboxes — against a host of high-tech and online options, especially the downloadable, print-at-home coupons found at Coupons.com, CouponCabin.com and other sites.
There’s no question which format is dominant — for now.
The free standing paper inserts delivered 87 percent of all manufacturers’ coupons distributed last year, says Suzie Brown, chief marketing officer for Livonia, Mich.-based Valassis, parent company of RedPlum, whose printed coupons reach 70 million households weekly.
Online coupons, on the other hand, account for less than 1 percent of all coupons distributed, she said.
The digital share of the market may be tiny, but its rate of growth is “frenzied,” says Steven Boal, founder and CEO of California-based Coupons.com. The company says it’s the national leader in digital coupons — a broad, growing category that includes online printable coupons, coupons downloaded to loyalty cards and mobile devices, and free standing apps including Grocery iQ for mobile phones. (The coupons in question are for food, household and health and beauty items and do not include those from group-buying programs such as Groupon.)
Boal says his company’s technology also powers Facebook fan pages that have coupons; thousands of websites with coupons, including some, like www.redplum.com, that appear to be his competitors; and online coupon sections of more than 500 newspapers.
“The mission for us is to make coupons available to consumers wherever they are, however they want to use them,” he said.
There’s no doubt about digital couponing’s rapid growth. Nielsen reported that Internet coupon redemptions jumped 263 percent in 2009. Other studies show leaps in savings from online coupons and one-month year-over-year increases of 60 percent or more in online traffic. Google searches for “printable coupons” increased 67 percent in 2010.
To Boal, the future is clear: “As our society depends less and less on what comes in the mailbox and more and more on what comes in the email box, you can see that the shift is taking place.”
But Brown of Valassis says the growth of digitally delivered coupons doesn’t mean traditional providers are in jeopardy. Virtually all of them are already online. And while new companies are involved in the technology, “the majority of content players are the same players who’ve been in it forever,” she said.
For busy working moms like Nicole Baron, the best advances in couponing may be the scores of blogs and social networking sites that have sprung up to make coupon use easier.
The bloggers do the time-consuming work of finding matchups — pairing chain stores’ weekly sales with manufacturers’ coupons online or in recent newspaper inserts. The matchups tell exactly where to get each coupon, so once someone has a backlog of inserts on file, it takes very little time to find and clip the vouchers they want, or to download and print them from the Internet.
“I was afraid it would take too much time” to use coupons, Baron said. But she finally agreed to accompany her mom to a class led by Bargains to Bounty blogger Jolyn Felten of Sterling Heights, Mich., and the light went on. “I couldn’t believe how easy it was. … She did all the dirty work.”
It takes a while to amass a backlog of newspaper inserts, but once those are in place, “you can start your stockpiles — extras of laundry detergent, food, toothbrushes” and other items that cost almost nothing after shopping sales with 2-for-1 deals, double coupons and other promotions. Felten’s site is one of many that encourage donating items to shelters and pantries.
Baron says she spends about an hour at her computer on Sunday nights perusing Felten’s drugstore deals as well as sales at Meijer and the VG’s supermarket near her home, which doubles coupons up to $1.
She says she saves about 75 percent on every shopping trip and often won’t buy a product that isn’t on sale or doesn’t have a coupon.
“I used to say, ‘That’s not me. I don’t coupon. I don’t have time.’ Then you start trying it, and you get very excited when you get a great deal.”
COUPONS BY THE NUMBERS
Coupons by the numbers
• $485 billion: Value of manufacturers’ coupons (See NOTE) distributed in 2010
• $3.7 billion: Amount consumers saved using coupons
• 332 billion: Number of manufacturers’ coupons distributed
• 3.3 billion: Number of coupons redeemed
• $1.24: Average face value of grocery-product coupons (up 6.9 percent from 2009)
• $1.94: Average face value of health-and-beauty coupons (up 6.6 percent from 2009 )
• 33 percent: Percentage of grocery coupons that required buying multiple items to receive discount
• 10.1 week: Average length of time before a coupon reaches its expiration date
• 1.5 weeks: Amount of time by which manufacturers shortened coupon expiration periods last year
• 64.4 percent: Percentage of grocery coupons that expire in 8 weeks or less
(NOTE: Refers to consumer-packaged goods, or CPG, coupons, which include both grocery and health-and-beauty categories.)
SOURCE: 2010 Coupon Facts Report by NCH Marketing Services, a subsidiary of Valassis