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Coupons are being used at a faster clip

The coupon is back, thanks to the recession.

After several years of decline, 2009 is on track to mark the first year that coupon use has grown in the U.S. since 1992.

Coupon clipping for the millennium isn’t just for detergent and cereal. Retailers of all stripes, including Walgreens and Neiman Marcus, have latched on to the coupon to entice consumers to spend. And the Internet and mobile devices are making coupons more widely available.

“Coupons are just more accessible to more consumers than ever before,” said Todd Hale, senior vice president of consumer and shopper insights at Nielsen Co. “Without question, the economy has caused consumers to make pretty significant shifts in where they shop and how they buy and use promotions.”

Most experts expect retail sales this holiday will be no better than 2008, which ranked as the worst season in four decades. The difference this year: Merchants are better prepared to protect profits and have reduced inventories going into November and December.

Sparse shelves mean retailers aren’t forced to take the 60% and 70% markdowns that prevailed last year. That puts the onus on consumers to work harder to find a good deal, leading shoppers in droves to discover coupon sites.

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Searches on Google for “printable coupons” and “online printable coupons” have more than doubled this year. Of consumers surveyed by the National Retail Federation, 42% said they planned to use a coupon for their holiday shopping.

At Coupons.com, one of the first and largest online coupon sites, consumers printed coupons worth $313 million in 2008. The site surpassed that full-year figure in June 2009 and expects $1 billion in printed coupon savings by year’s end.

Dozens of websites and blogs have cropped up that are dedicated to tracking retail and manufacturer coupons, gathering coupon codes for online deals and hosting forums in which shoppers share coupons and analyze the best and worst deals. Deal sites that once relied on members to share coupon finds with one another now have relationships with retailers eager to reach recession-weary consumers.

“It’s a great channel for retailers to boost sales, especially as more shoppers move online,” said Brian Nickerson, director of shopping for Internet Brands Inc., which operates Bargainist.com.

Asa Candler issued the first known coupon in 1894 when he gave away vouchers for a free Coca-Cola at his new drugstore. The following year, Post Cereal issued a coupon for a penny off a box of Grape Nuts. Coupons went on to gain widespread popularity as Americans scrimped during the Great Depression, and coupons reached their heyday in the advertising boom of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Coupon use peaked in 1992 with 7.9 billion coupons redeemed, according to Inmar Inc., a coupon processing firm. The practice has declined steadily since to 2.6 billion coupons redeemed in 2006, where it remained until late last year.

When 2009 comes to an end, the firm projects coupon redemptions will have gained 20% to 3.2 billion and remain strong even as the nation emerges from the recession.

Today, newspaper circulars still dominate, accounting for about 90% of the coupons distributed and more than half of those redeemed, but the Internet is rapidly making inroads.

smjones@tribune.com


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