Coupon clippers spurred to new efforts by tough economy
If the hassle of dealing with expiration dates and little slips of paper and comparing Giant Eagle's price with Wal-Mart's hasn't been eliminated from coupon-clipping these days, it's not for lack of trying. There are start-up companies, big corporations and bloggers with just a computer on the kitchen table all trying to make life easier for bargain-seeking shoppers.
And the treacherous economy, not to mention rising grocery prices, may offer the perfect moment to win over more consumers -- either to a particular online service or to the old-fashioned sorting through piles of coupons like those in today's paper. In December, according to a Nielsen Co. survey, 25 percent of consumers reported using coupons, a surge from the 21 percent in June.
"People are starting to figure out it's not going to get better before it gets worse," said Teri Gault, a coupon expert who regularly makes the rounds of television shows during sweeps months, in her case demonstrating her system of holding onto coupons until they're are top value.
The idea of saving money presses a universal hot button, attracting visitors to budgeting sites big and small. MyGroceryDeals.com, a coupon search engine that's been around for several years but was relaunched in November, recorded 100,000 unique visitors -- the industry's standard measure -- in January and expects to be profitable in a few months.
SenseToSave.com, a personal finance blog launched last summer by a North Hills woman, passed the 1,000 visitor mark and then the 2,000 visitor level in the same January week.
"It was a really big week," said Kacie Axsom, who still remembers the thrill of getting just 25 readers not that long ago.
The conversation, and the coupon offers, seem to come from all sides. Budget hounds might be looking for deals on CoolSavings.com, SmartSource.com, mycoupons.com or RedPlum.com, a new site from longtime coupon distributor Valassis, which also uses newspapers like Post-Gazette and direct mail to get promotions into households.
Ms. Axsom started her blog after reading books about saving money and then checking in on some other sites. She's not getting rich, although she thinks she has saved thousands of dollars using a combination of coupon shopping and discount tools, some suggested by contributors to her blog. "I'm not really doing it to make money. I'm doing it to save money."
While it can be easy to get into the discussion, there have been significant challenges to those trying to develop systems that identify deals in a timely fashion, then package them in a format that people find useful.
When ShopLocal.com was launched several years ago, many retailers weren't as well-wired as they are now. "The company was flying in newspapers from around the country and inputting ads," said Bob Armour, chief marketing officer of the Chicago company.
Even now that many retailers supply information to the company directly, he said, the deal aggregation site has stronger offerings from mass merchants such as Best Buy and Target than it does from grocery chains. In an industry with thin profit margins, supermarket operators may not be comfortable putting their deals in a place that eases comparisons, he said.
There have been other technology issues, too. Although many sites serve up information to get the most out of coupons from newspapers or through the mail, efforts to offer printable versions often raised concerns over the potential for abuse. Now sites use programs that can be dowloaded to create coupons the stores trust.
These days it is rare to find a grocer that isn't posting its own advertising fliers on the Web. O'Hara-based Giant Eagle is now testing an online coupon program that allows shoppers to upload e-coupons onto their Advantage Cards.
Mr. Armour, at ShopLocal, is confident consumers want information about supermarket deals. "The grocery e-mail is the most opened e-mail that we deliver."
Ms. Gault, a former actress who turned her coupon-clipping skills into a business in 2000 (The GroceryGame.com), said one of her biggest hurdle is getting past a generalized aversion to the chore of finding, clipping and tracking coupons.
"I understand that. I understand their pain," she said last week, talking on a cell phone as she rode in a car heading yet toward another TV appearance, this time in Miami, Fla. "I don't do all that work either. I have other people do the work for me."
Making the process painless may be the Holy Grail of the promotions industry. Saving time and hassle seems to be right up there with saving money.
Those who pay attention to their CouponMom.com, a site featuring tips from Stephanie Nelson, can save weekly newspaper grocery inserts but not bother clipping. The site's grocery coupon database helps identify where to find specific coupons, updating information from Sunday newspaper coupon circulars issued by RedPlum and SmartSource.
In addition to listing manufacturers' coupons, Ms. Nelson's free site compiles deals at Giant Eagle weekly as well as Kroger offers in nearby West Virginia and Ohio.
MyGroceryDeals.com, also free, started out four years ago with information from weekly circulars in five cities. Now, the company covers every ZIP code in the country, said Paul Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa, Canada, operation.
The site allows searches for specific products or deals at specific stores, which in the Pittsburgh area include Aldi, Shop 'n Save, Foodland, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Markets among others. Users can ask for certain diet issues to be taken into account. Visitors spend an average of 10 minutes poking around, said Mr. Davis.
The Grocery Game is a fee-based service in which members pay for weekly shopping lists only for specific stores. In Pittsburgh, available lists include Giant Eagle and the drugstores, Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens.
The 'game' refers to a strategy of hanging onto advertising circulars until the right moment. Ms. Gault's theory is that many products go on sale regularly, so it works best to stockpile. If a coupon can be used at the same time an item goes on sale, that optimizes the opportunities.
New lists assembled weekly highlight deals in different colors based on whether shoppers should consider stockpiling or just buying for an immediate need.
Paying a fee covers the employees who, Ms. Gault said, spend 16 to 20 hours on each list and churn out 100 lists per week. The California company has franchisees in various markets who stay on top of local concerns including customer-service questions. She also said her site tracks unadvertised deals that grocers may not have had room to list in their fliers.
The relationship between grocers and the sites that advise consumers on how to save money inside their doors appears complicated.
A Giant Eagle spokesman said the grocer welcomes opportunities for customers to save but, because it doesn't have a working relationship with such sites, it can't vouch for their accuracy. In addition, the spokesman, Dan Donovan, said, "Since there is little to no evidence that these sites directly impact our stores, we do not take them into account when determining our promotional mix."
SuperValu, the Minnesota grocery distributor that serves both Shop 'n Save and Foodland stores, sees potential for growth online.
"We will continue to monitor the electronic coupon environment, and offer applicable services and programs to our banner stores and independent retail customers as consumers turn to the medium to save money on their groceries," said spokeswoman Rebekah Fawcett.
Ms. Gault feels welcome when she asks permission to do a TV shot in a grocery. "Without meaning to be, I'm an advocate for the supermarkets," she said. She's convinced people can save more in traditional groceries than in warehouse clubs and stores that offer 'everyday low prices' instead of short-term promotions.
Wal-Mart's policies on matching competitors's deals are too limited, she believes. The Grocery Game is testing shopping lists for the nation's largest retailer in California and Texas, and expects to roll those out for the rest of the country soon. "The only reason we're doing that is because people want it," she said. "It's not the best place to save."
Meanwhile, Ms. Axsom is shifting the focus of her blog. For a while, she tracked her savings on drugstore purchases so readers could get the hang of it. Now that her cabinet is full, she is moving on to other subjects and doing much of her regular grocery shopping at value chain Aldi.
As for the coupons being offered all over the Internet, she's not that interested. "Lately, I haven't needed any of their products."
First Published February 10, 2008 12:00 am