The TLC network's "Extreme Couponing" show has changed the way many Americans look at coupons. But it's also made it more difficult to get some of the best deals at the grocery store.
The show features hard-core coupon clippers who are quite good at getting a bunch of food for little money or even for no money at all.
Since the show first aired last December, retailers have struggled to keep up with this new breed of shopper, who tends to buy in bulk, filling up a cart with 100 bottles of mustard, not because they can use it all but because with a coupon each bottle costs only 12 cents. Then there are the folks who in one trip get a cartload of pasta for free, leaving empty shelves for other shoppers.
To cope, retailers such as Smith's Food & Drug, and more recently Rite Aid and Target, have gotten more restrictive with their coupon policies in an effort to create an environment where everybody can get deals.
Rite Aid recently announced that shoppers no longer can combine a buy-one-get-one-free sale or promotion with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon to get two items for free. (This is what leads to shelf-clearing.) Manufacturers' coupons also no longer can be used for free items. Also, if an item is on a buy-one-get-one-free sale, a shopper at Rite Aid can no longer use a manufacturer's coupon on the free item; they can use only one manufacturer's coupon on the item they are actually paying for
Under the old system, some Rite Aid stores reported that their stock of popular items was depleted within minutes of the store opening.
Target, which allows shoppers to use one manufacturer's coupon and one store coupon on each item, also recently amended its policy to say that it won't allow shoppers to use a buy-one-get-one-free store coupon and a manufacturer's coupon to get two items for free. It's one of several steps Target has made, such as limiting the number of store coupons that can be printed off its website to two (there used to be no limit).
Managers at several stores where I shop think the "Extreme Couponing" show has increased the instances of coupon fraud, including the practice of photocopying coupons. Generally, manufacturers' coupons printed off the Internet can be printed only twice. Although trying to use a unique serial number more than that is a definite no-no, some people still try to get away with it.
As a result, Target has stopped accepting printable coupons for free items that have no purchase requirement. Smith's Food & Drug still accepts free-item coupons, but the chain has given individual store managers more leeway to limit the number of coupons shoppers may use each day. One Smith's where I shop allows shoppers to use only two of each type of coupon printed off the Internet.
Smith's also has put the kibosh on the practice of using two manufacturers' coupons one in print and one loaded onto a Fresh Values shopper card on the same item. (Stores get reimbursed only for one manufacturer's coupon per item.)
Last weekend, I witnessed how crazy people can get for coupons when I took a bunch of newspapers and cardboard boxes to a recycling bin. I saw a young woman open the lid and climb inside, looking for coupon inserts, while her children waited patiently nearby. It's probably no coincidence that "Extreme Couponing" recently featured a woman who did the same thing.
At The Salt Lake Tribune, we're hearing more and more from coupon clippers who want us to give them extra coupon inserts from the newspaper. Note that newspaper companies are contractually obligated to destroy any undistributed coupon inserts, so it's not something we can do.
"Extreme Couponing" isn't all bad, of course. The show has helped demonstrate the power of coupons by showing consumers how they can use them to help cost-conscious families make ends meet.
But you don't have to dive into a Dumpster for coupons or get 20 extra copies of the Sunday newspaper to save money. There are coupons online at Coupons.com, SmartSource.com and Redplum.com. Several blogs can help you find the best deals, including One Cheap Chick at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/cheapchick, Coupons4Utah.com and Freebies2Deals.com. Also, you can visit retailer websites and Facebook pages and ask friends and family for coupon inserts they don't use. Of course, you also can consider investing in a weekend or Sunday-only Tribune subscription.
When using coupons, resist the temptation of buying more of a product than you can reasonably use before an expiration date kicks in. If you encounter a wiped-out shelf, ask the store clerks for a raincheck so you can still get the deal after the store restocks.
Stores may have reined in some of the most "extreme" ways to save money, but there are still plenty of options. So get clipping.
Lesley Mitchell writes One Cheap Chick in daily blog form at blogs.sltrib.com/cheap.
Online: New coupon policies
O Two big retailers in recent weeks have made their coupon-acceptance policies more restrictive:
Target • bit.ly/hRWWNC
Rite Aid • Go to Riteaid.com/stores and click on "Rite Aid Coupon Acceptance Policy" near bottom of page.