running with scissors: couponing, rewards programs and how everyone gets screwed

For more than a few months (and years, honestly), I’ve grown increasingly distraught at the shell games business and consumers play with each other in the name of ‘savings’ and, now that ‘couponing’ has entrenched itself firmly in the mainstream of public conscience and every store in the universe has seemingly adopted a rewards program of some sort, it’s to the point where someone has got to stand up and ask why we bother at this point.


Why do we bother?

/sits down

No doubt we have seen them: those dedicated folks who truck the binders of coupons around the store and hold up checkout lines to make sure every cent is accounted for. I know a few of them myself, and I mean no disrespect to anyone who carries the couponing torch. But it warrants mentioning that the marketplace is not a static environment; at some point, like the casinos, the stores will respond to the hit to the bottom line. And most of them have. The house always wins, and card-counters are, politely or otherwise, when the tactics are recognized, asked not to return. In the same way, you don’t see manufacturer’s coupons without an expiration date anymore, do you?

It didn’t take me long to discover the hollow nature of ‘savings’. Even when I was a small boy, the allure of savings never made sense: ‘savings’ mean that something has to be invested first in order for the savings to take place, and thus the stores could set any price they cared to and discount from there, competing with no one but themselves. When a store engages in this kind of economic solipsism–and ultimately, they all do, collusion is how every store from groceries to gas operate these days; to wit, when was the last time you saw a full-on, community-wide gas war?–it can claim a sale price based off whatever mark-up they’ve pinned on an item.

Everyone these days is looking for a way to save a buck; I get this, and try to be as fiscally-responsible as possible. Indeed, couponing was a way to keep merchants honest and social discounting sites like Groupon were great ways to try to get a business’ name out into the public, while rewards programs encouraged customers to keep shopping to see greater rewards. Now, all of them are counter-productive exercises in screwing us all over.

When there are enough cutthroat couponers out there to dent the gross revenues of a business, that business has no choice but to control costs to support themselves, either by cutting hours of the workforce or raising prices. When the binder-brandishing set descends on a marketplace, they may be leaving with a cart full for a fraction, but the rest of us are forced to pay more, while the store has to engage in more gimmicks and tactics to avoid the law of diminishing returns, figuratively and literally. Target, for a time, honored expired coupons. That didn’t last long. Eventually, the coupons are worth less, and even the frugal end up spending more. The house wins. Especially in a market that is watered down by cheap money, stealth inflation, and a flagging economy [overly] reliant on consumer spending.

Speaking of the Bullseye–and, in the interest of full disclosure, I used to work for their credit card division, first for the original parent company, Dayton-Hudson, then rebranded to, as it is now, Target Corp–as soon as their Red and Red Debit Cards became eligible for a 5% discount across the store–SAVINGS!!!!!1!1!!–I mentioned to a manager of the local Target in passing how I needed to sign up in order to avoid the 5% mark-up that was coming. She didn’t disagree, and all but said how the prices had already gone up. When Panera Bread, the usual haunt where I have written for this site in the past (lackluster coffee and all), started their MyPanera program, I asked the cashier when the prices were going up. She looked at me blankly, then, within weeks, they unrolled new magnetic menus with…you guessed it, higher prices. In fairness, the freebies that come with Panera’s program are typically pretty generous, but the fact is that though the program doesn’t cost the consumer any, the consumer pays via higher prices.

JCPenney, the fading American retail behemoth, with former Target and Apple exec Ron Johnson at the helm, tried stopping this tide of bait-and-switch sales gimmicks by promoting everyday values and minimizing said gimmickry. The public, so drunk with the thrill of couponing and anything to save a buck, didn’t bite. Steve and Barry’s, the flash-in-the-pan retailer who fell victim to their overexpansion, thrived by offering quality clothes at deep discounts, and then imploded by overextending its supply chain in time for the first economic implosion in the late 00s. With the S&B threat gone, the rest of retail America went about the business of protecting themselves against the recession.

So, what happens when this kind of downward spiral goes unchecked? After while, emboldened merchants begin to skew the promotions to their advantage: using fine print, technicalities and ambiguous phrases, what appears to be a good deal ends up being not much of a deal. Grocery stores with gas promotions where the savings on gas come at a premium throughout the store (as regional grocer Hy-Vee just launched this week, that is, both a gas rewards program and massive storewide mark-up…what happens when oil goes up again? It’s like they’re not even trying!), advertised sale prices actually not discounted from the regular price (Hy-Vee again, in their pet section), ‘selected varieties’ of products being valid for discounts, retailers working with suppliers to make sure model numbers differ to avoid price competition (Best Buy’s calling card for years now.) Target, for the longest time, even refused to compete with its own website’s prices!

The allure of the sale triumphs over any real savings actualized by customers. For each time a couponer makes out like a bandit, a hundred others now end up having to pay more, in the exact same way that shrink requires at least $500 of additional sales to recover. Couple that with loose–charitably put–fiscal policies from Washington, and we wonder why prices skyrocket and Black Friday deals haven’t actually been worth waiting up for in three years. (And the things that are the subject of BF doorbuster deals seem to be cheaper and crappier than ever before.)

Oh, and by the way, firsthand experience in monitoring hotel revenue dictates that deals on hotel rooms via third-party deep discount websites are largely savings-neutral, and end up raising rack rates for everyone else, which then results in even less savings next time you log on. Different segment of the retail industry, same principle.

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as not patronizing retailers with rewards programs and gimmick keycard programs: it’s a ubiquitous part of commercial life. Unfortunately, the Ron Johnsons of the world have the right idea: cut through the smoke and break the mirrors and provide real value directly to consumers. We don’t bite because we don’t see flashy advertisements and sales signs. We’ve allowed the free market to be controlled, and refuse to vote with our pocketbooks. Something about the eternal price for liberty being vigilance. (Meh. ZOMG!!!1!!!1!! another weekend sale!) Couponing and Grouponing fail to solve the problem, rather they contribute to it by giving businesses license to raise prices without consequence.

(The same can be said for the whole health care debate and the ACA, but that’s another discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that we can’t complain about escalating prices while expecting discounted rates without consequence. Last I checked, effects have causes, which have effects, which have causes…you get the idea.)

In short, when we clip coupons and refuse to demand wholesale changes in retail dynamics (truth in pricing, call retailers’ bluffs, etc.), we’re only bleeding ourselves dry, and hurting other people’s pocketbooks in the process. Running with scissors.

Plus, what does one do with 647 bottles of poppyseed vinaigrette salad dressing bought for 31 cents, anyway? OK, fine, that was a cheap shot.

Regardless, we can never claim it’s a corporate greed problem when we are equally complicit in allowing stores to raise prices without the restraints built into a truly free (read: truly competitive) marketplace. Freedom requires both responsibility and accountability, and the current state of affairs demonstrates that neither buyer nor seller are particularly interested in either.

Saving a buck for the sake of saving a buck, be it a store’s rewards program, or a consumer’s thirst for savings at any cost, leaves us all all the poorer.


44 thoughts on “running with scissors: couponing, rewards programs and how everyone gets screwed

  1. great post. I always thought places like Bed, Bath and Beyond were hilarious, since there is never a circumstance where you wouldn’t have a coupon in that store. They always mail them out and they never expire. What’s the point? And it seems like Macy’s has some sort of sale going on every single day.

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for your time and your comment!

      Interesting you mention Macy’s; Dayton-Hudson/Target’s department store portfolio (Dayton’s in Minnesota and Wisconsin; Hudson’s in Michigan; Marshall Field’s throughout the Upper Midwest and Mervyn’s) was sold to Federated about 10 years ago, which in turn was co-opted to Macy’s.

      Macy’s move toward national prominence actually, in my opinion, cheapened the brand and its erstwhile labels in what amounted to becoming a high-class Walmart. Shopping Dayton’s was a joy, Macy’s is an exercise in tedium. And the prices are, most of the time, completely unreasonable for what they offer for us plebes. No wonder you can’t watch anything on Hulu without hearing that insipid swing ‘ONE DAY!’ jingle at every break.

      1. I watch a ton of shows on Hulu and that just cracked me up! I spent four months working at Nordstrom and we constantly were baffled at the people that compared us to Macy’s and the lack our having sales/compared to them.

  2. Every ‘savings’ is a ‘cost’ to someone else down the line. This was a very well written post and spot on. Instead of offering coupons and discounts and rewards programs, wouldn’t it be nice if retailers simply provided great value for our hard earned dollar (the way they used to do back in the 50s and 60s)?

  3. So, do you have any suggestions for how a consumer might intelligently and ethically participate in the retailing game? Or is that not possible, given the rules of said game?

  4. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. And I am hoping that all these couponers and other bargain chasers factor in the cost of fuel and travel each time they go racing after an apparent bargain. Sometimes it’s just wiser to get things where you are!

  5. I had a friend in Florida and every Sunday afternoon was spent cutting coupons out of the papers and piling them into the overfull pot on the dining table! The culture is now in the UK too and I fume as I stand in the queue waiting for the coupons in front of me to be sorted, checked for date and processed. By the way it was once said that if one wanted to wipe out 90% of the population of the US the back of Green Shield Stamps should be poisoned!

  6. I’m wondering if anyone has made a connection between the consumers’ apparently insatiable appetite for getting “it” for less and the diminishing number of well-paying jobs? Perhaps if everyone was paid fairly for their time and labor in the first place, then a fair price in the marketplace might not be as contested or contentious? Just wondering…

    Congrats on the FP!

  7. What really pisses me off is how grocery stores scam you into signing up for their rewards cards. Have you noticed how dramatic the price difference is if you don”t? Sometimes it’s almost double! It’s ridiculous and the saddest part of all is most people don’t realize the only reason they do it is to “buy” your information so they can track your purchases. All, of course, to make shopping better for you…yeh right!

    1. But it’s very simple – don’t give them your information. Not a single grocery store card requires your information to work. Simply get a card, and never fill out/turn in the information card. Voila – you get your discount and they don’t have your information.

      Sure it would be better if they skipped the cards, but I don’t see them going away any time soon.

  8. Great post. I have a large family and am always looking for ways to lower our expenses. The couponing shows give a false expectation and they require people to have basically a storage facility at hand and family members with self-control. Every time I get a “deal” on anything I marvel at what the mark up had to have been on my item and on everything else. “Smart shopping” shouldn’t require so much work, or planning to buy necessities or something with a short shelf life. Sales should be used when there’s a surplus on goods, or when new shipments are on their way in and stores need to make room. I love the rewards programs when you get a 5% off or $10 off coupon for using a credit card with a 21% APR. Unless you remember to immediately pay off the card, going for the discount has put you in a hole. And Bed, Bath and Beyond — okay we get that you’re obviously pricing everything 20% more than it should be. But the person who forgets his/her coupon or doesn’t realize that they never expire — that gives the store a 20% profit! And why put an expiration date on a coupon that doesn’t expire? ohhh don’t get me started. Rewards programs are ridiculous, too. Why not just price it right?

  9. In Australia, there are no coupons and a “sale” might be 20% off at best, so it’s pretty much impossible to score the kinds of massive deals that cause everyone else to have to pay more. Not that things aren’t ridiculously expensive here, anyway. There are plenty of rewards cards, though, some of them better than others. My grocery rewards card is tied into my frequent flier points (how useful are those, really?), but the more tangible benefit is the gas discount, which is considerably more generous than in America. If you spend $30 on groceries, you are entitled to $0.04 off per liter of fuel (so about $0.16 a gallon), although at least once a month, they run a promotion that offers $0.10 or $0.15 off per liter. In my experience, that is the only worthwhile savings and rewards program here.

  10. That “snake-oil” salesman sure has come a long way since he first rolled out his wagon.
    Attracting the consumer’s dollar (even if the consumer has to borrow that dollar) to the vaults of the marketplace owners is an exacting art, a precise science in which the competitive marketplace owners continue to improve on all the time.
    And the biggest tool they have in their toolbox is the consumer’s acceptance, as most are very naive.
    The majority of consumers cannot see through the smoke and mirrors, they are blinded by the bright lights.
    As a cartoonist and illustrator, I’ve created images for some of these “merchants” and have a semi understanding of how they think. It’s scary.

  11. Wow, I don’t know where to begin. I’m honored to have been read so widely. I apologize for not responding to each of you individually, but I do want you to know that I’ve enjoyed each response, and for those of you who have liked this post as well, I offer my heartfelt thanks.

    Not everything that is written necessarily has to be an activist post. Not all problems have quick, easy solutions (or drawn-out, complicated ones) and I’m certainly open to suggestions on how to change the consumer climate here in America (and elsewhere, for that matter.) No, I don’t have a briefcase full of JCP’s money, but voting with one’s pocketbook might be a good place to start, though, admittedly, it’s challenging because of the aforementioned ubiquity of couponing and rewards programs. Getting in touch with management and executives may also help. (Bear in mind, I work for The Man. Thoughtful client feedback is actually very valuable these days.)

    Also, I should mention that this was never intended to be an anti-business rant. The buyer is the vital part of the economic equation; indeed, tolerating the circumstances to this point is our tacit acceptance of them. In truth, many business and marketing executives divorce themselves from the front-line customer (and customer service) experience. Given the benefit of perspective, perhaps they would see how ultimately detrimental these kinds of antics are to all parties involved. (The same could be said for elected officials, who are almost always not only divorced from experience, but brain-dead to boot.)

    Thank you to those of you who have offered your perspectives from other cultures and backgrounds, as well. It’s fascinating to see other parts of the world and other worldviews interact with my own. At the very least, my hope is and has always been to spur meaningful and thoughtful conversation. Again, I’m open to suggestions on how to respond to the problem.

  12. Yeah, gotta agree tht every day there seems to be a one day sale at Macy’s and it’s kind of cracking me up seeing the commercials for it. It’s hard to feel safe with prices and I remember with the my Panera program the pries going up soon afterwards too!

  13. Agreed. There are very clever ways to present an offer, which is not really a great one. I reckon the audiences are becoming savvier and savvier, so creativity has to increase. I look forward to seeing new tactics.

  14. Borders (my dearly departed former employer) used to kick out the 40% off coupons every week. When they tried to ween the customers off of them, it didn’t work.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned Borders. Their demise was inevitable; in fact, I predicted their exact demise on this very page:

      Borders went from having the best rewards program in retail–cash value built over the year and spent in the holiday season–to the worst.

  15. This text should be read out, analysed and debated at schools, consumers’ associations, during coffee break at offices and at any independent media (that is, if there is any left). It is brilliantly explained, smells seriously well meant, and it is not afraid to call a spade a spade -names and all.
    Couponing has just got too far, to the obvious detriment of real competition, consumers’ thinking process, etc., not to mention the loads of crap many people end up buying (especially in overly consumeristic societies such as the USA). The appalling results, apart from what you’ve clearly expounded, include lessening of thought, ever-shrinking critical analysis, a significant part of the population led towards consuming more and more crap food, crap beverages, speeding their way to obesity, dependence on fruitless activity which is not even recreational… and the list goes on.
    An upshot, it occurs to me and forgive my ranting, is the growing custom of storing -storing in a hardly logical or practical way, that is: 96 boxes of frozen lasagna (shit-laden convenience lasagna, btw), 24 tubes of toothpaste, 30 bottles of shampoo, 120 bottles of “isotonic drink” (my pet peeve)… I do not think it is too adventurous to imagine this may also fuel many Americans’ paranoia on certain aspects. What if there was a cataclysm? Or a massive attack by foreign invaders?
    Well, for one, you could brush your teeth to Nirvana as you spend days on end locked in your garage-cum-storeroom. or feed on thawed pre-cooked lasagna to prevent your trans-fat filled arse from withering to normalcy.
    The situation in my country of origin (Argentina) has not got that serious in this respect, for any serious couponing is made virtually impossible due to perverse restrictions by which promotions cannot be “cummulative”, the fine print screws you 9 times out of 10, most supermarket chains shamelessly price up the day of the “discounts”, products included are few and not all brands participate, and preposterous discussions ensue when, for instance, you are forced to explain to the check-out girl > the check-out supervisor > the customer support representative of the day and so on that a spray foot antiperspirant should get the (denied) discount just as much as armpit antiperspirant if the “X% off” applies to “body antiperspirants. Or maybe my feet are not part of my body? Or maybe they are just savagely immoral and could not care less about the customer and know no organisation or ombudsman will actually, really support us.
    The situation in Brazil, where I’ve been living for 3+ years, is not very encouraging. Most of the population are poorly educated, at least half (I’m talking 100 million people) do not really have access to large stores and many more than that simply do not read newspapers/catalogues/Internet sites. And then again, most serious of all, we’ve got a population of almost 200 million here, while real access to whatever “real” education is out of the question for most and the worldwide acclaimed economic power is enjoyed by 40-odd million. Good Heavens forbid the poor should engage in any serious couponing.
    Congratulations on well-deserved FP, and please excuse any weird or poorly expressed idea (as you must have noticed, English is a beloved learnt foreign language to me).

  16. First of all, congrats on being freshly pressed.

    Second, I am all for saving a buck or two, but I’m not about to waste my time going insane over coupons and spending six hours in a store because I have 47 orders to go through and 10,000 coupons for things I’ll never use.

    That being said, yes, I do cut out a few coupons here and there for things I need. There’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion. But as you so eloquently put, ‘what does one do with 647 bottles of poppyseed vinaigrette salad dressing bought for 31 cents, anyway?’ (Great line, by the way.)

    There are more important things in life than wasting all this time. My sister will call me after leaving PetSmart (she fosters cats) and claims how she only paid X amount of dollars for litter because she bought coupons for it on eBay. But how much did those coupons cost? She’ll buy ten newspapers because there’s a coupon for $.50 off (insert product). But how much did it cost to buy the newspapers? My mom insists on buying, for example, ten cans of tomato paste because “it’s 10 for $10.” When the $*@* are you going to need ten cans of tomato paste? I have two cans that have been sitting in my cabinet for over a year. (Yes, I know, I need to clean out my cabinets.)

    People need to look at the bottom line. I bet a person feels awesome when they go to the store, spend three hours arranging coupons at the checkout and walk having spent only $1.38, but how much did your coupons cost to attain? If you’re spending the same amount on coupons that you could spend at the store without buying the coupons in the first place, then there’s a serious issue.

  17. I used to think like you but the grocery store near me uses coupons that I click from my iPhone and then when I go to the grocery store, I get a discount. It is on items that I usually buy. So not all coupon ads are bad in my book!

  18. I miss steve and berry’s!! I loved their store, and I loved that they carried the Amanda Bynes line, and sarah Jessica parker in addition to their sportier stuff. Miss them so!! I am holding on to the last chevy hoodie my parents bought me there in memory

  19. I like what you are saying with this article.
    Yes, it does not pay in the long run to chase after coupons. You bought something not because you need it, but because it looked cheap. That is impulse buying. Stop buying and that is the best way to save.

  20. Interesting post. In Italy (and in Europe in general, I think), it is very hard to find coupons. We just have to wait for winter and summer big sales!

  21. You make an excellent point. I feel as if the topic of conversation is often about “deals” around my grandparent’s kitchen table and they are so married to the concept of getting said “deal” that they refuse to look at the obvious (the store is not losing money, all of the consumers will end up paying for it.) Hy-Vee’s recent switch to the rewards card versus the gas discount was a hot topic recently. I have often debated the Kohls Cash system with my mom and grandma, who believe they are getting a great deal. Half of that store is always on sale, so you know that the original prices are ridiculously marked up or they wouldn’t be able to afford to do that. I wish there was a clear-cut answer to the problem, but I am unaware of if it exists. Great post!

  22. Lovelovelove this. When given the chance to “join” the store’s club with a discount card, I invariably decline. . .I don’t need another card in my wallet, I reason. Now I know that I’m secretly being a clever consumer. Thank you.

  23. Thank you so much for this information. Won’t be using those member cards any more. I never did like them because I always felt watched/monitored. You’ve given me more reason to bin them 🙂 Agree with above, going to be a clever consumer 🙂

  24. I have written my fair share of couponing posts in my past and have to commend you for this!
    Of course with all the media and the TV shows enhancing the couponing lifestyle it’s hard to not to want to give it a try. In fact, once I saw one episode I figured that if they could do it so can I, but I never really went so far as to cut even one coupon.
    The thing that people may or may not realize (maybe they realize but just don’t care) is that when it comes to food most of the discounts are on food that isn’t always the best for you. Whether its for health or just too much, like you said how much of one item is too much?
    I often consider couponing simply for the fact that I realize how much one can save and how many people are in need, if anything I would end up donating the items to help those less fortunate.
    I thought you were right on discussing what exactly happens with all these discounts, however we get them. What people fail to acknowledge or understand is what happens to the prices, the familiar WalMart slogan “Roll Back” really means roll forward first and then back!
    Great post!!!

  25. As far as I remember in the UK, where I am from, the restrictions on retail are much more stringent. For example, to advertise something as discounted, it has to have been at a higher price previously for a minimum period of time (30, 60 or 90 days – something like that). One of the funniest US examples I have seen recently is through Vons’ Gas promotion. You can get up to 20c per Gallon discount from any Chevron station (here in California at least). Chevron is invariably 15 – 20c more expensive than most other gas. BUT, if you can find a rare (like hens teeth) Vons gas station, you can get 50 or 60c discount if you have enough points. And they dont even advertise that……

  26. Ha! I did the couponing thing for awhile and was planning a post on it…but you beat me to it!! Have to agree with you as one who’s been there….especially when one factors in the amount of one’s time couponing costs. Congrats on FP!!

  27. Couponing doesn’t make sense without comparing prices to what you regularly buy AND consuming as few things as possible. It doesn’t replace minimalism in saving money:)

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