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Deal-hunters go to extremes playing the coupon game

Subjects of TLC's 'Extreme Couponing,' including a Maryland woman, drive a hard bargain

April 23, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

Kirlew, the Bethesda participant, appeared on the first episode April 6. The mother of three is shown at her home in the basement storage room where she keeps her "stockpile," which includes 60 boxes of cereal and 200 bars of soap. She has a shower stuffed with 450 rolls of toilet paper and 250 rolls of paper towels. A part-time paralegal, she began couponing a year ago when her husband lost his job, and she said it quickly became an obsession. She spends up to six hours planning one of her four weekly shopping trips, viewers are told.

On a visit to a Damascus Safeway, she sets out to use 2,500 coupons. Seventy-seven of them are for mustard. The condiment has a retail price of $1.39, but with 50-cent coupons that will be doubled, she'll get each bottle for 39 cents. Kirlew's husband, who has come along to help, notes that he does not eat mustard, but the self-described Extreme Coupon Diva is undeterred.

"I think we should clear the shelves," Kirlew says, leaving just one bottle behind.

Piling on 40 boxes of cereal, 63 packages of cold cuts and other products, they fill four carts to overflowing. Checkout is a two-hour roller coaster that reaches a high of $1,902.63 before coupons bring the tab down to $103.72.

Just a minute …

Shoppers and store managers are shown gathered around, applauding. But Kirlew's performance, capped by a little tap-dance at the register, quickly came in for criticism from other dedicated couponers. Jill Cataldo, who bills herself as the Super-Coupon Queen and writes a syndicated couponing column, wrote on her blog that Kirlew had misused coupons on the show.

She contended, for example, that Kirlew applied 75-cent coupons for Fiber One cereal on less expensive Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Kix. The cash register could have mistakenly accepted the coupons because all the cereals are General Mills products; food manufacturers are in the process of converting to a new bar-code system and stores are upgrading register software to guard against that sort of error, said Cataldo, who does consulting work with the industry.

Cataldo and readers of her blog also noted that the register freezes at one point during Kirlew's checkout because her total is so high, forcing the clerk to manually enter coupons. When the coupons are manually entered, the register might not pick up on misused coupons, Cataldo said.

On jillcataldo.com, the blogger and readers have picked apart screen shots of Kirlew's coupons, cart and spread-sheet shopping list with the zeal of "CSI" investigators.

"She was using the Nivea $5 off 2 Body Lotion coupon on the Bodywash (you can see the bodywash on the belt in the other screengrab) and also we can see she was using $.50/1 Pillsbury French Bread coupons on the small cans of Grand biscuits (look on the belt and on the screen)," one person writes.

In an interview, Cataldo acknowledged that the program did not show everything in Kirlew's cart and that it was possible that she did, indeed, buy Fiber One and other products required for coupon savings.

"Yes, they're editing, but we saw coupons for four-packs of Yoplait being used on single cups of Yoplait," Cataldo said in a phone interview. "It may seem like a fine line, but the distinction must be made that it is fraud."

Kirlew declined to comment through Smith, the TLC vice president. On her Facebook page, Extreme Coupon Diva, Kirlew blamed the controversy on "a coordinated effort by Jill Cataldo (and her couponing fan base) to attack me and my FB page."

A second look

Smith would say only that TLC is investigating.

"We have talked to J'aime about the allegations," Smith said. "We're looking into it."

On the day of filming, Kirlew told Safeway managers that part of her strategy was to use coupons on products for which they are not intended, said Greg TenEyck, spokesman for Safeway. But Kirlew was not allowed to do so, said TenEyck, who was not at the filming but related what store officials who were present told him.

"I did hear that's what happened, that she had said, 'This what I do,' and our folks said, 'That's not our policy. You've got to use the correct coupon for the correct item,' " TenEyck said. "Our folks went over with her our rules, and so she couldn't use a Kellogg's Rice Krispies coupon to buy Kellogg's Raisin Bran or something like that. As a matter of fact, there were a couple of her coupons she tried to use that we rejected because she was doing that type of thing. Whatever she had bought was not the right size or the right brand."

Jenkins, the Abingdon couponer, said there is no need to resort to sleight of hand or other extremes to get great savings. (She said she seeks out those teenage checkers not because she'd ever misuse a coupon, but because veteran checkers sometimes give her a hard time about legitimate vouchers.)

Jenkins spends an hour or two a week looking through supermarket fliers and clipping coupons, which she keeps in a baseball card organizer. She did need two carts recently, when ShopRite had a triple-coupon promotion. And she buys nonperishables in bulk when items are on sale. She hasn't bought dish soap in three years, though she recently noticed that her stockpile was dwindling.

"Oh, my gosh," she concluded. "I will have to eventually buy dish soap."


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