Using coupons seems straightforward when you first start to clip. Save $1 means save a buck — how complicated is that?
But once you've mastered the basics, you may notice that the serious couponers are saving more. They're out there applying coupons to clearance items, using competitor coupons and even expired coupons.
Isn't that cheating?
Not necessarily. Different stores have different coupon rules. Employees often give conflicting explanations of those rules. Fortunately, most chains have a document that can settle the confusion: an official coupon policy.
Dominick's customers recently endured a worst-case-scenario for coupon confusion. In the past, Dominick's had accepted coupons up to one year past the expiration date. Then in early February, the store's registers started greeting expired coupons with a beep. At my store, the employees had no idea why this was happening, since they had been instructed to accept expired coupons. Legions of disgruntled customers reported beeping expired coupons on the Dominick's Facebook page. Many stores refused to accept the beeping coupons.
Customers were confused — did Dominick's still accept expired coupons or not? After several days of silence, a spokesperson posted on Facebook, "our corporate policy is NOT to accept expired manufacturer's coupons." A few days later, the store changed its official coupon policy to reflect that. Dominick's declined to comment.
I share this episode not to rip Dominick's for its customer-relations fumble. Plenty of customers have already done that at facebook.com/dominicks. I bring it up to illustrate that there is no across-the-board right or wrong way to use coupons. Whether you can use a certain coupon is not dictated by common sense or morals. Acceptance can change from store to store and from time to time. The only way to really know right from wrong is to check the store's coupon policy. In the Dominick's case, customers had to endure a few days of confusion, but eventually the store's policy caught up to its new practice.
Many stores have posted their coupon policies online, where you can print them and carry them while you shop. You'll find links to the policies of Walgreens, Target, Jewel-Osco and Dominick's on the Frugalista blog at su.pr/1wUfTY.
If you present a valid coupon and the cashier says you can't use it, will it do any good to whip out your copy of the store's coupon policy? Or will you be laughed out of the store?
Megan Stevenson, marketing coordinator for Jewel-Osco parent Supervalu, said that if employees doubt the authenticity of your printed policy, they can always check the copy they keep behind the service desk.
That would be the ideal scenario. But on Frugalista shopping trips to various grocery chains, I have yet to see an employee consult an up-to-date corporate policy. I haven't tried showing them my own printouts of coupon policies, because I have been too disorganized to carry them in my coupon file.
But if nothing else, read them. Coupon polices save you from wasting time trying a coupon that the store doesn't allow. And when you know you're right, you can confidently appeal to management or corporate customer service.
Finally, knowing the coupon policy can tip you off to deals, including when it pertains to free or discounted items with alcohol purchases. Check out this line from Jewel's policy:
"Illinois/Iowa: Liquor Coupons that state they are redeemable on a purchase of liquor and a non-alcoholic item are redeemed without the customer having to purchase the liquor item."
Allison Radkay, of Homewood, read this line and wondered if it could be true. She had seen coupons for a free pizza with a 12-pack of beer, for example.
"Do we have to buy the beer?" she asked me in an email.
Jewel-Osco's Stevenson confirmed that Radkay's coupon would really get her a free pizza, no purchase required.
"Due to state laws in Illinois, customers are not required to purchase any type of alcohol (beer, wine or liquor) when offered on a coupon (store or manufacturer) in conjunction with a non-alcoholic product," Stevenson wrote in an email.
You often find this kind of coupon stuck to the sides of beer packages or hanging from wine bottle necks. Despite what the policy says, when I have tried this, the store staff didn't believe I was supposed to get the free item with no alcohol purchase. But Radkay recently got $3 off flowers with a coupon found on a wine bottle. I'm inspired to try again next time I find such a coupon.
And I'll be sure to bring that printed-out coupon policy.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun