Why Coupons Are Harder to Find Than Ever

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Jill Cataldo is a master of coupons.

She began cutting them out to save a dollar here and 50 cents there in the Great Recession, when she had two children in diapers and money was tight. Starting with a training session at the library in her Chicago suburb, she shared what she learned with others, and now has a syndicated column and a website where she writes about coupon deals and other ways to spend less.

The pandemic, however, upended Ms. Cataldo’s world. Paper coupon inserts in the Sunday newspaper seemed flimsier. Even popular digital coupons were hard to come by.

“There are brands that I’ve followed for over a decade that are just not issuing a lot of coupons right now,” Ms. Cataldo said. “It’s kind of frustrating, because it’s something we came to count on for a long time.”

Now the steepest rise in the cost of living in four decades is making bargains even more coveted. “With inflation, this is what should go up tremendously as a tool to help customers,” said Sanjay Dhar, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

But that tool is getting ever harder to come by. In 2021, Kantar Media estimates, 168 billion circulated, across both print and digital formats. That was down from about 294 billion in 2015.

The shrinking coupon market includes not just the number of coupons distributed but also the share turned in at checkout. Redemption rates declined to 0.5 percent of all print and digital coupons in 2020 from about 3.5 percent in the early 1980s, according to a paper by economists at Harvard University, Georgetown University and Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf.

The economists see a larger phenomenon: Increasingly time-strapped consumers don’t want to deal with even small hassles to save a few dollars on toothpaste.

“The declining use of coupons and the declining redemption rates indicate a fundamental shift in consumer shopping behavior,” the authors wrote. They added, “We view this as additional evidence that declining price sensitivity reflects a longer-run secular trend.”

At the same time, mobile phones have made all kinds of other incentives possible, including cash-back rewards, points that can be redeemed for store credit and contest prizes.

“Practitioners often want to get discounts to consumers in a seamless manner,” said Eric Anderson, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s not clear that traditional coupons do this.”

That explanation offers little consolation to people who’ve come to depend on coupons to keep their grocery costs down, like Ms. Cataldo’s readers.

“I don’t think from the consumer perspective that they’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t care.’ We do care,” Ms. Cataldo said. “It’s just that we have fewer tools right now to play the game.”

The couponing industry as we know it started in the early 1970s when a Michigan printing company, Valassis Communications, began distributing booklets of discounts on particular products that could be redeemed at any store.

Valassis would total up the slips of paper, and the manufacturer reimbursed the retailer for the discount. Soon, grocers saw the value of coupons in driving traffic to their own stores, and began newspaper inserts of their own. The number of print coupons distributed peaked in 1999 at 340 billion, as circulation newspaper also crested, according to Inmar Intelligence, the other large coupon settlement company, alongside Valassis.

But a slide in redemption rates had already begun. It’s difficult to pin down why, but people close to the industry believe it’s related to the rise of the two-income household, as more women entered the work force. Ms. Cataldo remembers growing up in the 1980s, when, she said, her mother used coupons enthusiastically.

“Back then it was a little bit of a different culture because we had so many stay-at-home parents who had time to do this,” she said. “It’s time that pays well, but you have to have that time, and if you are working eight hours a day, you probably don’t.”

Coupon use enjoyed a resurgence during the recession of 2007-9, which left millions of people out of work much longer and with much less financial assistance than they would receive during the pandemic recession a decade later. “Couponing” became a widely used verb courtesy of the reality show “Extreme Couponing,” which brought people into the practice with promises of stackable discounts that could bring the cost of a shopping cart’s worth of purchases close to zero.

But what delighted serious couponers dismayed manufacturers, which are focused on getting people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise, not giving discounts to people who’d buy the product anyway. That’s why brands started pulling back on promotions and limiting the number of coupons that could be used in a given trip.

At the same time, grocers and big-box stores were coming under pressure from e-commerce platforms like Amazon. They responded by beefing up their store brand offerings as well as asking companies like Procter & Gamble to lower prices on name-brand items.

“They want to get the best deals so they are competitive at the shelf,” said Aimee Englert, who directs client strategy for consumer packaged goods companies at Valassis, now part of a company called Vericast. “What that ends up doing is constricting the budgets that manufacturers have to pull levers, like to provide a coupon.”

As their wiggle room on discounts shrank, brands wanted to make sure they were squeezing as many extra purchases as possible out of their promotion dollars. The average value of coupons shrank, as did the time over which they could be used. And the rise of smartphones provided an opportunity that seemed far superior to blanketing neighborhoods with newsprint: Offers could be personalized and aimed at specific demographic profiles. Coupons could be linked to a supermarket loyalty card, which gave retailers data on whether the coupons prompted a shopper to switch brands.

Greg Parks is another coupon blogger who got started in the wake of the Great Recession, looking to stretch his income to feed three children. Although he began with newspaper clippings all over his floor, he now does instructional videos exclusively using digital coupons, which can be used nationwide rather than in a single distribution area.

“I like to say that I’m a lazy couponer now,” Mr. Park said. Plus, he has noticed that digital coupons cut down on dirty looks from cashiers when they have to process a stack of paper.

“Some of them act like we’re stealing, or taking something from them,” Mr. Park said. “They don’t want to deal with all those paper coupons, they’re such a headache. With digital, everything just automatically comes off.” (While only 5 percent of coupons distributed are digital, they represent about a third of all coupons redeemed, according to Inmar.)

Mr. Parks, however, is on the high end of coupon user sophistication. Many people who depended most on print coupons — older shoppers on fixed incomes — may not have the computer or smartphone literacy to adopt the digital version. Dr. Dhar, the University of Chicago professor, said the switch to digital hit the wrong demographic.

“That’s not the coupon-using population — they don’t use digital media very much,” said Dr. Dhar, who remembers surviving on coupons 30 years ago as a graduate student in Los Angeles. “A lot of this isn’t driven by the response to coupons. It’s driven by coupons not reaching the right people.”

To be sure, manufacturers have not abandoned the pure reach of physical coupons. The free-standing insert still works as an advertising vehicle: In fact, the ideal outcome for a manufacturer is that a shopper sees a coupon and then goes to the store to buy the item without redeeming it.

If coupons had been slowly dying for years, the pandemic delivered a sharp blow.

Seemingly overnight, roiling supply chains and the lurch from office to home left consumers desperate to buy anything they could get their hands on; brand preferences went out the window. When inflation started to spike last year, not only did retailers have trouble keeping stocked shelves, they weren’t even sure they could maintain stable prices until the coupons expired.

“The last thing those manufacturers want to do is put more incentives on those because it’s going to spike demand up even more,” said Spencer Baird, Inmar’s interim chief executive. “This is what we very consistently hear: ‘We’ve got a budget, we’re ready to go, but until we get my fill rate where it needs to be, I don’t want to mess up my supply chain.’ ”

Use of even digital coupons sank in 2020, for the first time, before rebounding. While most of those are tethered to a specific retailer, the coupon industry is working on a universal standard that will allow shoppers to redeem digital coupons at any retailer that signs up.

But there’s no guarantee that retailers will stick with coupons, when other incentives are gaining in popularity.

Lisa Thompson works for Quotient, a company formerly known as Coupons.com, which started in 1998 as a website where you could print coupons rather than clipping them. The company is scaling back printable coupons, and the Coupons.com app already mostly offers cash-back promotions instead.

“Honestly, it’s a dying form of savings, and we know that,” Ms. Thompson said of paper coupons. “A lot of my job has been working with the marketing team to make ‘coupon’ sound sexy.”

Plenty of dedicated couponers still prefer the old-fashioned way.

“I agree, it’s going down, and at some point it will die,” Ms. Cataldo said. “I’m not looking forward to that. But it’s not happening nearly as quickly as they thought it would.”

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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