Coupons can still reduce bills for smart consumers

May 20, 1994|By Andrew Leckey NTC | Andrew Leckey NTC,Tribune Media Services

Discount-coupon clippers, aggressive in the best of times, must be lean, mean, fightin' machines to get the most for their dollar in 1994.

The number of coupons issued has declined for the first time in more than two decades. Furthermore, the average coupon now expires in three months, rather than the four months of a year ago and the generous 12 months of a few years back.

You can still save big by using the 100-year-old coupon tradition, because there remain plenty of coupons out there. But it will require greater planning and faster action.

The move to so-called "everyday low pricing" is behind the tightening.

For example, General Mills has reduced annual spending on cereal coupons and price promotions by 30 percent, or more than $175 million. It will instead cut prices on top brands an average of 11 percent.

"Consumers are saturated with cereal coupons and telling us not to give them more, and to instead give them lower pricing," said Craig Shulstad, an executive with General Mills. "Despite a significant increase in industrywide cereal coupons last year to 25 billion, the number redeemed remained flat."

A year ago, Procter & Gamble initiated the cutback trend by curtailing coupons offered for disposable diapers, a move since carried through to some other product lines.

"We've reduced coupon distribution because they cost us a lot of money," said Gregory Rossiter, a spokesman for Procter & Gamble. "They don't provide the majority of customers with value because the majority don't use them."

Despite such tough talk, the coupon is far from dead. Just check your mailbox and coupon inserts in your newspaper to verify that fact.

Even with last year's 3.7 percent decline, 298.5 billion coupons were issued. About 7 billion coupons were redeemed, at an average face value of 60 cents. Product categories with highest average value included tobacco at $2.13, feminine hygiene products at $1.71, diet aids at $1.12 and cereals at 87 cents.

The average household received about 3,000 coupons last year and saved $60 by using coupons.

"While someone might say $60 a year doesn't sound like much, that's only an average figure, and avid coupon users save $500 or more," explained Jane Perrin, senior vice president of marketing for NCH Promotional Services, the promotion information division of Dun & Bradstreet, which provided that data.

"In addition, there are easier ways to obtain and use coupons now, such as coupon machines right on the shelf or at the cash register in the checkout line," she said.

Free-standing insert sections commonly found in Sunday newspapers are on the rise, now accounting for more than 80 percent of the coupon market, compared with 7 percent in 1972.

"Our business is increasing, and face value of the coupons is going up as well," noted Lynn Liddle, vice president with Valassis Communications in Livonia, Mich. "Our firm prints 55 million inserts each week and ships them to 370 newspapers."

Expert coupon-clipper Susan Samtur of Yonkers, N.Y., said she generally saves 50 percent through coupons and refunds.

"Don't fall into the pattern of clipping coupons and simply forgetting them," said Ms. Samtur, who wrote "The Super Coupon Shopping System" (Hyperion, New York: 1994) and co-edited the refund-offer newsletter Refundle Bundle, Box 140, Yonkers, N.Y. 10710 ($19.87 for a two-year subscription).

Tips for systematic coupon savings:

* Don't waste time clipping coupons for products you're not interested in. It slows the process and makes it harder to find the ones you'll use. Note expiration dates, and stock up on items you use regularly if the coupons are about to expire. Be flexible about brand names.

* Organize coupons from every source into several different categories, such as detergents or paper products. Take your coupon-filled accordion folder or envelopes to the store. When you need an item, check what coupons you have. Track refund offers, which must be mailed in, for they're offered on some of the same products you're buying with a coupon discount.

* Some aggressive stores around the country also offer "double couponing," in which a coupon's value literally is doubled. Thus, a 50-cent coupon becomes a $1 savings. Check each store's restrictions.

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