Redeeming value

October 08, 2005|By PETER JENSEN

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the supermarket. Don't sweat it if you failed to commemorate this important milestone. (And don't send a gift. They have practically everything already). If you're like most families, the neighborhood Giant or Safeway has become a second home - with less-flattering lighting. People not only get to choose from literally thousands of different products (and that's just the soda aisle), they can graze like cattle on government land. (Son, mosey on over for a free cup of fruit juice to wash down that free wedge of Colby before you chow down on that free sugar cookie.) No wonder the opening last Sunday of a humongous new Wegmans grocery in Hunt Valley received so much free publicity. Shopping for groceries is a peak experience for the average suburban parent - up there with supervising math homework, sorting the recyclables and hocking valuables to pay for the next tankful of gasoline.

But all this ignores an even older, less-appreciated institution. And one that - unlike, say, blocking the aisle with one's shopping cart - may actually be falling out of fashion. So let us take a moment to offer praise to the manufacturer's coupon, those cleverly designed bits of clip-and-savings that magically appear each week in the Sunday inserts.

If you are like most people, these are quickly dispatched to the recycle bin (where they can eventually be sorted - ah, the joy). But those with a bit of patience, a pair of scissors and a few skills in basic math can save a respectable sum. Not necessarily a heaping basketful of groceries for $10 (an urban shopping legend - a truly hardcore saver never breaks a five). But enough to underwrite several trips to the neighborhood Starbucks for cappuccino, or the equivalent value in Krugerrands, is not out of the question.

First, a few facts. Last year, manufacturers placed 342 billion coupons in circulation. Of those, 3.2 billion (roughly one for every hundred printed) were redeemed with a total face value of more than $2.9 billion. That might sound like a lot, but it was actually less than what was redeemed the previous year. In fact, redemptions have been on at least a five-year slide. The reason? There are competing theories, from the rise of discounters such as Wal-Mart to the increasingly hurried lives of shoppers. (The lack of a coupon organizer that can't be scattered by a bored preschooler is an equally compelling hypothesis.) Whatever the cause, the pattern is undeniable. In fact, it's puzzling that the Internet hasn't offset the trend. More and more, coupons are being bought and sold online (and sometimes they are counterfeits), a troubling development to marketers who often try to control costs and restrict promotions to certain regions of the country.

Granted, some coupons aren't worth the trouble. There's not much cause for a vegetarian to stock up on cans of Beefaroni. Sometimes even doubled coupons aren't worth it because comparable store-brand items might still be cheaper. But there are those spectacular moments when the planets align - when a dollar coupon meets a product already marked down to $1 by the store - and the shopper knows that the system has been vanquished. It's the ultimate savings nirvana. Too bad it's inevitably for something like sweetened condensed milk or instant soup. Useful stuff, but not the kind of thing a guy can boast about Monday morning around the office watercooler. (You thought the Ravens' D was good, Fred, you should have seen me score that shelf-stable milk. Sweeeeet.)

Clearly, manufacturers and supermarkets need to do more to reach out to the modern consumer. The first manufacturers coupon was produced in 1895 and it was for a free glass of some popular new drink called Coca-Cola. So in that spirit of innovation, here are a couple of modest suggestions: First, invent coupons that dissolve into pocket lint after their expiration date. Sorting out dead coupons is the bane of every serious shopper. And second, stores really should give coupon clippers a little recognition. Save $30 and all the check-out clerks have to give you a cheer and maybe form a human pyramid or stencil your name along the curbside pickup lane. After all that clipping, sorting and comparison shopping, they deserve a little redemption of their own.

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