Celebrating veterans with plenty of deals

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Medina Menozzi of Bridgeville got up at 3:45 the morning of Veterans Day to be the first in line for a special sale at Koda Bridal Shop in Mt. Lebanon.

Brides and Veterans Day may not seem the most natural of pairings, but the store was offering free bridal gowns to the first three dozen brides who were part of military couples.

Ms. Menozzi's fiance, Alec Chebatoris, also of Bridgeville, did two tours of duty with the Army in Afghanistan and the couple plan to marry in April 2015. Abby Miller of Monroeville is engaged to Army veteran Kevin Cooney and she, too, showed up at the shop bright and early.

"I'm still paying off student loans, and he's still in school," Ms. Miller said. "To get the wedding dress I wanted for free is a huge help for us."

In addition to the parades and ceremonies held around the country on Monday honoring men and women for their military service, many companies rolled out the special deals to veterans. From free coffee at Starbucks to an entree at Applebee's or a meal at Olive Garden, a haircut at Great Clips or financial advice services from Wells Fargo, the discounts and freebies available covered a wide array of goods and services. In Pittsburgh, Primanti Bros. was offering free sandwiches.

Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Co. has an ongoing promotion benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports wounded veterans. Scanning a QR code on specially marked ketchup bottles sends a thank-you card to Wounded Warrior, along with a monetary donation from Heinz, with a bonus donation if participants shared on social media.

There were also a fair number of companies running promotions that didn't necessarily benefit veterans directly but were Veterans Day-themed. After all, a lot of people had the day off and businesses need to draw in consumers.

There's a fine line, says Michael Walsh, associate professor of marketing at West Virginia University, between a company trying to do a genuinely nice thing and one labeling this week's sale with the current holiday.

"I think one thing companies often overlook is how a short-term promotion fits with their mission, with their values," Mr. Walsh said. "Is it legitimate and they can say, 'This is part of our role, part of our responsibility'? But if the motivation is just 'it's the second weekend in November, what can we do to pump up sales' then they should probably step aside."

It's a debate that's raised regularly around holidays, of course. There are Fourth of July sales and Mother's Day sales and even Christmas sales that seem to have little to do with the occasion being celebrated.

Any time of year there's value in reaching out to the some 23 million veterans who the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported were in the U.S. as of 2011.The largest cohort is Vietnam War-era veterans, many of whom are retirement age or older.

The Veteran Population Projection Model (VetPop 2011) report found that male veterans who worked full time earned about $5,300 more than nonveterans in the workforce, while their female counterparts earned about $7,000 more than nonveterans.

But companies need to tread carefully, since consumers are savvy and in this era of social media, reaction can be swift and fierce to a marketing plan that seems phony, Mr. Walsh said. "The public does have a tendency to come down hard on companies that come across as disingenuous," he said.

Mr. Walsh praised the Heinz promotion as a good example of a company with a stated community outreach mission, which was making an out-of-pocket cash donation based on participation by customers. "To me, that's impressive," he said.

That said, many veterans and their families seem to appreciate a generous offer. A lengthy list of discounts appeared on Army.mil, the Army's official website.

Social media can also be used by those trying to alert friends and family to promotions that might work for them. Both Ms. Miller and Ms. Menozzi learned about the wedding dress promotion on Facebook.

Ms. Menozzi said while she and her fiance were primarily interested in the bridal promotion, they were considering seeking out other Veterans Day discounts for their Monday night dinner.

"I know there are a lot of places where you can get a free meal," she mused, "but I was up early, so we'll have to see if we're up for a night out."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241.

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