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While it may be true, as the old bumper sticker says, "When the going gets tough - the tough go shopping," it is also true these days that those shoppers are likely to have coupons in hand.

According to a recent study by Nielsen Clearing House Promotional Services (NCH), a clearing house that processes coupons around the world, 75 percent of those surveyed said that one of the chief ways they cope with the recessionary climate is to use more cents-off coupons.Coupon use increased 15 percent from 1987 to 1990; 77 percent of all U.S. households use some coupons.

Ever since the first coupon was issued - a 1-cent-off offer given by C.W. Post in 1895 - manufacturers and retailers have recognized coupons as an effective promotional tool, and their appeal is growing strong. In 1990, consumers saved $3.53 billion by using manufacturer coupons. Consumer savings resulting from coupon use has grown to more than four times what it was in 1980.

According to Valassis Inserts, a company that produces free-standing inserts for newspapers, consumers can cut their annual grocery bill by at least 10 percent by using manufacturers coupons. Since food accounts for 15 percent of the average American family's budget, that can mean substantial savings.

Approximately 86 percent of all coupons distributed in the U.S. are found in the newspaper, but you can also find coupons in magazines, "junk mail," in-store displays and inside products and on packages.

More than $75 worth of coupons and other offers are distributed through newspapers weekly to the doorsteps of 53 million households across the U.S., says Valassis. If you used every coupon that came your way, that could add up to nearly $4,000 of tax-free income each year, says the company. However, not many households do that, but the average coupon-user saves $520 per year using coupons, says the company.

One of the reasons that more coupons are being redeemed these days is that there are more coupons out there. More that 279 billion coupons were distributed in 1990, up 4.4 percent from 1989. The types of products for which coupons are offered have also increased dramatically from the traditional grocery-store items such as cereal and pet food. Women's magazines, auto care, optical centers and gas stations are increasingly recognizing the value of coupons.

The top 10 categories of coupons in 1990 were: 1. cereals and breakfast foods; 2. medications, remedies and health aids; 3. pet food; 4. cookies, crackers; 5. cheese; 6. detergents; 7. cough and cold remedies; 8. sanitary protection; 9. candy and gum; 10. condiments, gravies and sauces.

Newcomers to this list include cheese, sanitary protection and condiments, gravies and sauces, which were introduced in greatly increased numbers last year. They knocked skin care preparations, oral hygiene and hair care coupons down farther in the list.

Record changes have taken place in the consumer promotion industry in the last decade. Total coupon distribution has almost tripled, the result, says NCH of several factors, including:

- A shift in manufacturer promotion spending from media advertising to consumer promotions.

- The realization that offerinc coupons produces results and can be a more strategic and effective tactic than price cuts.

- Coupons' ability to induce trial of new and improved products and to gain sales volume in a competitive economy.

- The versatility in reaching all target groups through a variety of media choices.

In 1980, about 58 percent of the coupons distributed had a face value of 15 cents or less. In 1990, only 3 percent of all coupons had that face value; almost 20 percent had a face value of 21-25 cents; with another 19 percent valued between 41 and 50 cents.

Face value is a contributor rather than a primary influencer of redemption of coupons, says NCH. Consumers seem to give primary consideration to the product itself, their interest in it and their "need" for it, rather than making their decision solely based on the face value of the coupon.

Manufactures who are looking for brand switching or trail of a new product find they have to offer higher face values than for a promotion whose goal is to maintain current brand users.

But the bottom line, says Valassis, is that coupons save a lot of money. "Consumers can save an average of $75 a week for approximately 30 minutes of work. That's a better salary than many part-time jobs offer."


(Additional story)

Clipping tips

Here are some tips to help you tap into the savings coupons offer:

- Make a shopping list.

- Organize your coupons to keep track of what you have and their expiration dates.

- Take advantage of product refunds and rebates, but be sure they're worth your effort and postage.

- Keep track of how much you save each week.

- Shop at stores that offer double coupons.

- Keep your coupon organizer in your car for spur-of-the-moment shopping.

- Look for coupons everywhere. Most coupons (86 percent) are distributed through newspapers, but don't forget to look in magazines, retail circulars, on packages, in the store.

- Purchase items that are on sale for which you have coupons; this will increase your savings.

- Check all expiration dates before presenting coupons to the cashier.

- Try new products - they're often introduced with high-value coupons. If you don't like the product, you don't have to buy it again.

- Use coupons to stock up on items you use regularly, but remember to check the expiration date on the product.

- Get your family involved, and use your savings to help pay allowances, start a college fund, save for a vacation or buy a TV or VCR.


- The average duration of coupons decreased by one month over the last three years, from 5.9 months in 1988 to 4.9 months in 1988. There has also been a decrease in no-expiration-date coupons. In 1988, 9.3 percent of coupons had no expiration date; in 1990, only 3.7 percent had no expiration date.

- 42.1 percent of all coupons are redeemed in the first three months; 32.7 percent are redeemed in the 4-6 month time period.

- The United States is not the only place where coupons are popular. In Canada, for example, coupon distribution increased 45 percent in 1990 over 1989. In Italy, 61 percent of the coupons are distributed door-to-door. Coupons were recently legalized in Denmark, while in Germany, coupon face values cannot exceed one percent of the product's value.

- The per-household redemption rate in the United States is the highest in the world, with an average of 77 coupons per household. Canadians redeem about 30 coupons per household, and in the United Kingdom and Belgium, markets average about 18 coupons per household.