Who says nothing in life is free?

When we were kids, if my brother and I were served an unusual meal for dinner the running joke was “mom must have had a coupon for that.” My parents were the generation who grew up with S&H Green Stamps and the 70s gas crisis drove their usage of coupons up a notch.

Today, economic circumstances are similar and as studies support, the once nearly extinct coupon has reached all-time redemption highs in the past few years. It’s even influenced shows like Extreme Couponing where episode after episode features families whose focus is on obtaining hundreds of dollars worth of items from the grocery store for mere pennies simply by using coupons.

Carried out as someone put it “with the precision of a military operation,” these shoppers spend countless hours clipping coupons, scouting out the store in advance to match store sales with their cache of coupons and consider it a sacrilege to buy anything not on deal. The extreme couponer readily admits how they stop at nothing to collect coupons including dumpster diving or even buying them from coupon services. This is a family affair and husbands and kids are often enlisted for hours at a time to clip stacks of coupons. Weeks are then spent aligning all of this with careful calculations to ensure almost all items will be free. On shopping day, they arrive with a 10-pound coupon binder and a strict list of items they will be “buying” for nothing

Extreme couponers all seem to have something else in common – the desire to amass large stock piles of grocery products in their homes. These trophy rooms are a compilation of all their bargains, shelves and shelves of them. They not only know, but will proudly recite its collective retail value, which often shockingly exceeds $10,000 – all of which were gotten for FREE. It’s often not long before their obsession takes over other areas of the house and bedroom closets, bathrooms, etc., become secondary warehouses for their “must have deals.”

Of the few times I have seen this program, I am amazed at how much time these families dedicate to couponing, which by my count is the equivalent at minimum of a part time and sometimes full time job. Sure, some are doing it because it is financially needed, but equally as many seem to be in it simply for the rush of getting something for nothing. I keep waiting to hear how some of the items were donated to food banks or others in need, but that’s usually rare. So what exactly is the rationale of needing 25 super sized jugs of laundry detergent?

I also wonder if this is what suppliers had in mind, or retailers for that matter, when they launched their coupon programs. What is it doing to the perceived value of grocery items when show after show demonstrates products such as cereal, hand pump soap, toothbrushes, deodorant and the like can be purchased for nothing and in large quantities no less? Just amass coupons, watch for in store specials, only go to stores that double coupons and wah lah, free goods.

Among other things, coupons are supposed to incite trial and build loyalty and while extreme couponers are a tiny minority, shows like this one will no doubt teach other shoppers how easy it is to get something for nothing. It seems to me, some suppliers and retailers have allowed their coupon programs to get off the mark a bit. I’m not suggesting doing away with coupons, but maybe it’s time to modify the rules bit, in particular limiting quantities. In a business where profit is measured in pennies, it may be time to rethink whether your coupon program is helping or hurting your bottom line.

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