Coupon redemptions dropped 8.1 percent in the first half of 2013, even as manufacturers of things like shampoo, toothpaste, kitchen cleaners and batteries stepped up their promotional offers.
That might seem to prove that post-recession consumers are tossing out the coupon file and spending more freely, but no.
"People are still concerned about their pocketbooks," said Charlie Brown, NCH Marketing Services Inc. vice president of marketing. He noted a recent survey by the subsidiary of Livonia, Mich.-based coupon giant Valassis found those who'd picked up the practice of using coupons during the recession plan to stick with it.
Instead, Mr. Brown said, the industry is seeing a post-recession market correction of sorts, in which companies that use coupons to drive consumer spending are shifting what they promote, how long they do it and where they distribute the discounts.
The Great Recession brought a return to couponing not seen in years, as Americans rediscovered the tools that past generations used to trim the grocery bill. Manufacturers and retailers responded, and 2010 and 2011 were big years for coupon use.
"What they were doing in the recession was promoting existing brands in order to maintain their share of sales," said Mr. Brown.
But 2012 brought a lot of new product introductions -- a sign of renewed confidence from companies, he said. "New products tend to have a smaller audience size, because they're brand new," said Mr. Brown.
Manufacturers like to use coupons to entice shoppers to give new items a try, but overall it can add up to lower redemptions. Last year, redemptions were down 17 percent from the previous year, according to NCH.
There are other factors in the lower redemption of coupons, including that growth in the distribution of deals for nonfood items. People don't buy toothpaste or bathroom cleaner as often as they might peanut butter or frozen pizza.
Since coupons are tools for directing consumer behavior, companies also are experimenting with the best ways to do that in an increasingly digital world.
Mr. Brown said digital coupons -- a term that includes both those loaded to smartphones and loyalty cards, as well as those that shoppers pull up on personal computers and then print out -- still represent less than 1 percent of all coupons distributed, but they've seen double-digit growth as marketers try out the new tools.
Because such offers tend to be either targeted in a way that reaches interested, niche customers, they can be effective. Of the total coupons redeemed in the first half of this year, NCH found nearly 9 percent came through digital formats -- 6.1 percent for print-at-home discounts and 2.5 percent for paperless formats.
Traditional free-standing inserts, the kind of coupon booklets delivered with Sunday newspapers around the country, still accounted for the majority of consumer packaged goods coupons redeemed this year and reached tens of millions of potential customers.
In terms of paper offers, Winston-Salem, N.C., promotions consulting company Inmar reported that instantly redeemable coupons attached directly to product packages saw a big bump in the first half of 2013.
No matter how they are delivered, coupons can be costly for the companies offering the deals. And since they don't know how many people will take them up on the offer, the final cost can be hard to pin down.
NCH has tracked shifts meant to reduce the potential liability, tactics that were seeing growth before this year but have continued. Those include shortening expiration dates by 3.2 percent to an average of nine weeks.
Food offers, in particular, aren't lasting as long and the coupons are generally good for a week less than they were in the past.
Consumers also are being required to buy two or more items. That's especially true in the food sector, where Mr. Brown said 42 percent of food coupons were only good for things like two jars of pasta sauce, six yogurt containers or maybe five frozen dinners.
"The marketer is always trying to get you to buy more," he said.
By comparison, only 18 percent of nonfood offers required the purchase of multiple items, although even that was up from last year.
Retailers, like manufacturers, also continue to tinker with ways to drive sales. Recently, there have been reports of more grocery stores ending double coupon programs, while boosting digital coupon offers and offering things like fuel rewards to loyalty users.
Neither Giant Eagle nor Shop 'n Save stores in the Pittsburgh market have plans to end their programs, which generally double manufacturer coupons up to 99 cents, according to spokesmen for the two supermarket groups.
"Giant Eagle continually evaluates national and regional consumer trends to ensure that it delivers these savings opportunities in ways that resonate with customers," said Dick Roberts, spokesman for the O'Hara grocer. "For example, the use and availability of printed manufacturer coupons has decreased in recent years as the popularity of digital coupons has increased. As a result, the company has continued to enhance its eOffers digital coupons."
Shop 'n Save is also growing its digital program.
"The ability to load eCoupons directly to the Perks card is a program that allows us to provide an extra level of convenience to our customers while also allowing us to learn more about what they need most," spokesman Ben Boskovich said.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.