Down to Business: Coupon use increases in tough times

One thing remained constant, though, according to Nielsen: Newspaper inserts are the preferred metho

I come from a long line of coupon clippers and sales hunters who are as eager to get the circulars from the Sunday paper as they are the news.

So it was with some relief that I read the latest trend report, “The Coupon Comeback,” from consumer researcher The Nielsen Co. You see, coupon redemption had been drifting lower since hitting a peak of 4.6 billion in 1999; between 2006 and 2008, it stalled at about 2.6 billion annually.

Might the cents- and dollar-off discounts offered on brand products slip away altogether?

No, thanks primarily to the Great Recession: Last year, redemptions grew 27 percent, to about 3.3 billion, according to data from Nielsen and another market researcher, Inmar, as worried consumers turned to coupons to help pinch pennies. At the same time, smart manufacturers responded by boosting the number of coupons available to the highest level in decades.

Other trends also seen by Nielsen: more stores beyond the traditional supermarkets — dollar and convenience stores and military commissaries — were honoring coupons, and manufacturers were pushing out more non-food coupons. By the end of 2009, in fact, about a third of all coupons were for non-food items like household cleaners, toothpaste and makeup.

One thing remained constant, though, according to Nielsen: Newspaper inserts are the preferred method of distribution. And that’s why you’ll see this ritual most Sundays at my house: separate the circulars from the rest of the paper; pull out the packets of manufacturers’ coupons offered by RedPlum and SmartSource; set aside the most-promising grocery and retail fliers.

Each group then is devoured in turn. What’s on sale at the supermarket? Has Kmart or Target marked down cat litter? Is there a coupon for Suave body wash or deodorant? What about yogurt and coffee? (You’ll hear a cheer — no kidding — when a product both is on sale and a manufacturer’s coupon is found in the paper.) This hunting-gathering process, which takes about 30 minutes, results in a shopping list for the week or the potential for savings later (until the coupon expires, that is) on products bought most often.

And while I’m no savings guru — handing over great stacks of coupons to reduce my food bill to just pennies — I’m content enough to save a couple of bucks at checkout.

The big users — “enthusiasts,” as Nielsen calls them — “drove a disproportionate amount of sales and sales growth” last year, shopping more frequently and buying more products. Interestingly, it’s more often an affl uent consumer — those earning $50,000 or more — who uses coupons, according to the company.

But consumers soon may fi nd coupons in more and more places: on retailer websites and at in-store kiosks — delivery mechanisms that Price Chopper, for instance, has added. Or, they may receive them in new ways: via text message sent to their cellphones. (In fact, about 7 percent of households in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy market already get coupons that way, says Scarborough Research, another consumer researcher. That compares to 10 percent or more of households in larger metro areas like Chicago and Washington, D.C.) “Smartphones” — cellphones with Web capabilities — may be the next platform to watch, according to some advertising and marketing experts. Nielsen says it expects such “advancements” to keep interest in coupons strong and to help drive sales for manufacturers and retailers for years to come.

Does that make my Sunday coupon-clipping regimen old-fashioned? Maybe. But I’m game for a Web upgrade, too.

Marlene Kennedy, a longtime business editor in the Capital Region, can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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