Susan Samtur still has what it takes to put on a good show and her recent performance at the Lawrenceville Shop 'n Save left shoppers and staff gaping in wonder.
By the time employee Jeff Albinger finished totalling the cost of Mrs. Samtur's groceries -- $168.94 -- and then subtracting the value of her 64 coupons (eight were doubled), the screen behind him flashed a mere $7.13.
"She did a lot better on this one," noted Barbara Vaughn, a Shop 'n Save employee who rang up Mrs. Samtur's groceries a few weeks earlier when a local TV crew followed her around the store.
The "coupon queen" and her husband, Stephen Samtur, who live north of New York City, have been on the road off and on for weeks visiting the nation's most savings-receptive communities.
This is something of a comeback tour for one of the early divas of savings at the grocery store. She's been talking about coupons since the early 1970s when the couple -- both teachers in New York City -- discovered homeownership brings lots of bills.
A friend taught her about couponing and she ended up putting together a newsletter she sold for 75 cents each. The couple's early marketing efforts including putting free copies on windshields to get subscribers. Then Mr. Samtur saw a TV piece on another coupon clipper and urged his wife to promote herself.
And she did. In 1978, she got her big break -- and her "coupon queen" nickname -- from "Today" show personality Betty Furness. That launched a period of touring the country, generally by car with her husband and growing brood of children, going from interview to interview. She
appeared on TV shows such as "Hour Magazine" with Gary Collins and "The Richard Simmons" show. She contributed to Family Circle magazine. Amazon still lists a couple of Mrs. Samtur's coupon shopping books.
But things have been quieter in recent years, partly by choice. The coupon queen began to travel less. Her profile dropped as those of other homegrown coupon advisers rose.
Mr. Samtur said the Refundle Bundle Magazine, which once had about 100,000 subscribers, now goes to about 15,000 people every other month. Subscribers pay $23.87 for a two-year subscription.
Now the family couponing business is going through a sort of restructuring.
The couple's oldest son, Stuart, came into the business not long ago and urged his mother to be more proactive -- to get out on the circuit again at a moment when consumers are focused on saving. They loaded videos of past TV appearances onto YouTube.com. The family is discussing whether to offer online subscriptions to the magazine.
The Samturs also are promoting SelectCouponProgram.com, an online service that promises consumers $25 worth of their favorite coupons for $4.95 a month.
The first month is offered free, just to get people to try it. Mrs. Samtur, always the deal shopper, said she warned her son not to be surprised if many sign up and then drop after the first month. Coupon people like to get things for free. She's like that, too.
Being back on tour allows her to show off her crowd-pleasing skills that don't seem a bit rusty.
Befitting the subject matter, this is not a frill-laden operation.
Generally Mr. Samtur, 65, drives and Mrs. Samtur, 64, reads or works on her computer or even knits. On their recent Pittsburgh visit, they stayed at a Comfort Inn on Rodi Road.
Some markets generate more interest than others. After a recent visit to Arizona, they only noticed a few hundred hits to their Web site.
A Philadelphia appearance triggered about 3,000 hits.
Before the Lawrenceville Shop 'n Save visit, the couple had arranged with the manager to do a demonstration shop with the groceries returned to the shelves after the dramatic cash register scene.
Although it was for show, Mrs. Samtur took her choices seriously as she hunted down brands and sizes. Maybe it's the competitive zeal to get that bill down low, low, low.
Nestled in the front of her cart was a taped-up coupon organizer that her mother made.
She's determined to keep it from falling apart. In her hand, she held a typed shopping list organized by category and including brands and sizes.
The list helps her avoid getting the wrong size bottle of dishwashing soap. Even the coupon queen admitted to having had those moments of rejection at the register.
Her system involves a few basic steps: Save coupons from every source possible; Organize them in a file preferably by categories that grocery stores use; Pull the ad flyer for the store and look for sales.
If a sale can be paired with a coupon, it puts the shopper that much closer to getting something for free.
One secret to her success may be her access to a wide range of coupons. In the early days, those came through things such as coupon trading night at the local bowling alley or even the coupon board at the neighborhood grocery store.
Yet to support services like the Select Coupon Program, they needed more. Mr. Samtur said they've worked out arrangements with "hundreds of suppliers" around the country who get paid 5 percent of a coupon's face value. People ordering coupons through the newsletter are charged 10 percent. The program isn't associated with any manufacturers.
In fact, manufacturers don't exactly encourage such activities.
"If I'm distributing a regional coupon, that's intended for that marketplace," said Suzie Brown, chief marketing officer for Valassis, one of the nation's major distributors of coupons through venues such as the Red Plum coupon inserts in newspapers, direct mail pieces and online at RedPlum.com.
Valassis, based in Livonia, Mich., estimates more than 280 billion coupons were distributed last year.
The number of those that get shifted around to different markets is not significant, said Ms. Brown.
Manufacturers want consumers to use coupons to try new products or return to a particular brand, and the recession has increased coupon redemption in the past six to eight months, she said.
Mrs. Samtur is sure manufacturers are benefitting from her work, especially since brand name products tend to offer more coupons so she often touts those kind of products.
As she pushed her cart along fighting with the requisite balky wheel, her deal-trained eye easily picked out special offers on the shelf: Notice the Cookie Crisps box has an offer for a Great Clips haircut?
This box of Hefty bags has four extra bags, while that one doesn't.
This dispenser is handing out coupons for the Jolly Time mini bags of popcorn.
"You can always hold on to that and buy the item when it's on sale," she advised.
The petite woman struggled to reach the Green Giant frozen vegetables on the top shelf.
At one point, she stopped with interest by a store brand cereal with an attached coupon. "One thing I can say is they have a lot of sales in this store," she marveled.
Not just staying in the center aisles, her cart included eggs, fresh pears and chicken breasts. "Produce is starting to become more branded," she said. And brands often get promotional budgets and coupons.
Aware many people don't have the patience to do a lot of coupon organization, Mrs. Samtur urged them to pick a few favorite categories to focus on and watch for promotions.
Impatience sometimes extends to the checkout aisle.
After more than one Lawrenceville shopper is waved on to the next aisle, her seemingly patient husband takes a moment to explain that she often offers gifts of appeasement to those forced to wait behind her. She looks for coupons for something that's already in their cart.
With this show done, the Samturs prepare to head off to their car for the trip home. In a week or two, they expected to be out again. Where? Maybe Detroit and Chicago.
There might be a few savers who live in those cities.
Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018. First Published May 21, 2009 4:00 AM