One Cheap Chick: Utah's couponers behaving badly, even illegally
As I mentioned in a recent column, TLC network's "Extreme Couponing" show has created heightened interest in the practice of getting discounts on food and other necessities. But some shoppers, in their zeal to duplicate the huge savings, have resorted to bad and even illegal behavior to create brag-worthy stockpiles.
Here is some of what's going on in Utah:
Stealing from newsstands • The show focuses on acquiring a large number of the same types of coupons in order to accumulate products for little or no money. Instead of ordering multiple copies of the Sunday newspaper or getting extra coupons from friends or family, some folks have been stealing extra copies from newsstands by putting in money for one and taking the rest.
Coupon theft has prompted some newspapers, such as Provo's Daily Herald, to temporarily put only one Sunday newspaper in each rack in many locations. It's not a big-dollar-value theft, of course, but "putting [money] into the newsstand for one copy and removing all [of them] it's definitely theft," said Salt County Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hall. "It's like walking into a grocery store and putting eight candy bars into your pocket, paying for one and walking out." If prosecuted, the action would be considered a Class B misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
There are other issues with the Sunday newspaper because retailers such as Kohl's often put valuable coupons inside or on the front page, in the form of sticky notes. I've heard from readers who go to buy a newspaper, only to find that someone has removed all of the sticky notes from the front pages. I've also received calls from people who work at convenience stores, saying that on certain days they have to take newspapers off the rack and put them behind the counter so that customers don't rip off the coupons.
Climbing into recycling bins • On a recent "Extreme Couponing" episode, the show glorified shopper Desirae, who was "so thrifty, she [didn't] even pay for newspapers. She [got] all of her coupons from public recycling bins."
It's a new twist on Dumpster diving. Stores, schools and other property owners are finding more people rifling through and even climbing in recycling bins to find extra coupon inserts. Some have even put up signs asking people to stay off their private property. Schools and other organizations typically rely on the bins to earn money from recycled paper products.
One store representative I talked to worried about someone getting hurt climbing into or reaching into a metal Dumpster with sharp edges. This is especially true for folks who take their children into the bin with them. (I saw this for the first time the other day.)
As with other such deeds, taking items out of recycling bins could be considered a criminal offense that some property owners might want to discourage by taking legal action to keep people out.
Photocopying coupons • Most coupons found on the Internet can be printed only twice. Photocopying a coupon that has a proprietary bar code is coupon fraud and is one of the reasons more stores are leery of coupons printed off the Internet. Some won't accept free-product coupons for this reason, while others will accept only two of the same type of Internet-printable coupon per visit. If you photocopy coupons, you'll eventually be banned from printing coupons from your computer. You could even face legal action. Don't do it.
Abusing store policies • Some stores will ad-match, in which retailers agree to match the price of an identical item sold by a competitor. On a recent trip to Walmart, I noticed the shopper ahead of me in line ad-matching cereal boxes that were much larger than the boxes on sale at a competing store.
Walmart could do more to prevent price-matching abuse and probably will, eventually. But for now, the global retailer doesn't require consumers who ad-match to bring in a copy of the competing store's ad. And that has led to some creative price-matching.
When I ad-match at Walmart, I always bring in the competing store's ad, present it at the register and buy the same item or items that are on sale at the other store. It's the right thing to do.
Using coupons unethically • On a recent trip to Target, a manager told me she sees shoppers not only abusing price-matching policies (that's why Target is so strict) but also trying to use coupons on items other than what the manufacturer intended. When they are told they can't use the coupon, they basically "blow up" at the cashier, the manager said.
To combat the problem, the manager has begun training cashiers for such instances.
Where is all this weird behavior going to lead? Already, stores have tightened coupon policies. Manufacturers are starting to put limits on the number of coupons that can be used at one time. Procter & Gamble includes fine print on most of its coupons that limits shoppers to using only four of the same coupon on the same shopping visit.
It's easy to get caught up in coupons. I love saving a lot of money on items I need. But going to extremes isn't the way to do it.
Lesley Mitchell writes One Cheap Chick in daily blog form at blogs.sltrib.com/cheap
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