Friday, January 23, 2009

Couponing ethics

When I first started using coupons, I didn't know much about them. I knew that you could get them in the paper and sometimes you could find them on the internet and print them. I tried to match them with sales and that was that. A bit of money saved.

But in the past six weeks or so, as I've become far more knowledgeable about couponing at CVS and at various grocery stores, I've run into the big grey area of couponing ethics. It is very big, and in some cases it is very grey.

Some coupon fraud is abundantly obvious. If you photocopy a coupon, that is fraud. Everyone knows that. But in today's technological era, it is possible to print multiple copies of a coupon. Sometimes this is obviously fraud (for example, when you hack a system such as so that it will print more than the alloted two coupons). Sometimes it is much harder to discern; if a couponing blogger links to an IP (internet printable coupon) that takes you directly to a pdf file, how do you know if it is legitimate? You can print as many copies as you like from a pdf file, but some of them come directly from the manufacturer's website in that form (for example: Johnsonville sausage has a pdf coupon up right now) and some of them have been hijacked by someone, somewhere, and put into pdf form illegally. And what about coupons that are printed in a regular paper, which also show up (in printable form) on the paper's internet version? Is the online version an "authorized reproduction" or not? It can take a LOT of work to figure that out. How much time is enough to be "due diligence"?

After awhile, some of these become obvious. I no longer read iheartcvs regularly because the author is a major contributer to coupon fraud. It took me about a month to figure this out, however, and many who read the site may not realize that the coupons she posts or the deals she points out are often not legitimate. In the case of online newpapers and printing coupons, I'm honestly not sure what the right answer is. There is heated debate on the topic and I think it probably would take a lawyer to give a truly definitive answer, since the argument hinges on the legalese in the fine print. (Because I'm not sure, I choose not to use them.)

What about coupons that "work" on items that they aren't supposed to work for? If it works, is it ok to do it? This is a question that many consider to be a very grey area. Let me give you a real example from a few weeks ago. Albertsons was running a really great Procter & Gamble special: buy $30 of specified items and get $15 in catalinas for your next purchase. In the advertisement it noted that this deal was "one per transaction" (as opposed to "one per card" or "one per household") so I planned two transactions. I used the $15 catalina from the first purchase on the second purchase, and the computer system didn't have a problem with that.

The trouble is, later that week I read on HCW that in tiny little print on the catalina it says "not valid on Procter & Gamble purchases". I went back and looked at the catalina that I still had in my purse, and sure enough, that is exactly what it said. Now, this was not obvious at all, and when I used them for my own procter and gamble purchases I did so without knowing of the potential ethical problem. Since the system took them, and since I hadn't read anything other than the large print "$5 off your next purchase" I simply assumed that they were ok to use. But according to the fine print, they weren't.

This kind of issue causes hot debate in the couponing world. Most people seem to think that you can use a coupon however the store allows you to use it. I.e. if the computer doesn't reject the coupon, it is fine to use it no matter what the fine print says. The store has the ability to tell its computer what to take and not take, and so if it takes a coupon it is tacit approval for using that coupon. Others maintain that you should read all the fine print before using a coupon to be sure that you're using it exactly in accordance with the manufacturer's wishes. Their mantra is "just because you can, doesn't mean you should." I can see both sides, although I find the first position a little unreasonable when the same people get mad at stores for not accepting certain coupons!

That position also gets complicated when the computer rejects a real coupon for no discernable reason, as happened to me tonight. The Johnsonville coupon that I mentioned previously is being co-sponsored by Johnsonville and by the company that owns Albertsons. If any coupon should work at Albertsons, that one should! But it didn't. The manager pushed it through anyway after we had a polite but lengthy discussion about their coupon policy and the specifics of that coupon. And I called Albertsons customer care to ask about it after I got home - we'll see what comes of that. I'm hoping for some clarification so I'll know what to expect when shopping at Albertsons.

Another grey area is the use of "e-coupons". There are a variety of sites that let you load e-coupons onto your club card at certain stores. These e-coupons don't double at the store, but they come off automatically and you don't have to shuffle any paper coupons (nice!) In practice, if you buy an item and have an e-coupon for it, you can also use a paper coupon and both coupons will come off the same item. This is known as "stacking". Some stacking is perfectly acceptable (for example, Target allows stacking of Target coupons and manufacturer coupons, as does CVS). I have heard that stacking e-coupons and paper coupons may not be ok. So far I don't have a firm answer on that - I'm still in the process of researching it - but I'm leaning toward Thrifty Mama's perspective that it is ok.

Misusing coupons may save a few dollars right now, but in the long run it hurts everyone. Stores are becoming more and more choosy about what coupons they will accept, and it is common for clerks and managers to be confused about what they should and should not accept.

About a week ago I planned a trip to Walmart (a store I shop at regularly, but not frequently). I had fourteen coupons that I planned to use, some from the Sunday paper and some IPs printed from legitimate manufacturer websites such as Johnson's. Knowing that some stores have stopped accepting IPs (due to the aforementioned technological coupon fraud) I checked Walmart's corporate coupon policy before going. They do, indeed, accept IPs, as long as they meet some basic coupon guidelines (such as having a barcode, and a real address to send them in for reimbursement).

When I got to the checkstand at Walmart, the clerk nicely informed me that she couldn't accept my IPs. I nicely asked to speak with her supervisor, since corporate policy was that they were accepted. To make a long (30+ minutes!) story short, I spoke to the clerk, her supervisor, and two assistant managers before one of them checked with the lady in the back who actually sends in the coupons for reimbursement, and she said "just scan them and see if they scan!" (They did.) Not one of the managers knew what the corporate policy on coupons was, and I'm sure they were all rather annoyed with me. But it would have doubled my bill, and I thought it reasonable for them to honor their in print corporate policy, so it was worth it to me to discuss it all the way to the top rather than give up and go home (especially since I knew that I was right!)

When I got home I sent an email to Walmart's corporate customer care, explaining what had happened, the time it had taken to resolve it, and asking that the managers at the store be better informed as to the coupon policy. The next day I had a call from the same manager I'd talked to at the store, apologizing for the problem and admitting that I was, indeed, correct about the coupon policy.

It is easy to be annoyed when this happens. And I was. But the reason that clerks and managers are confused about this is because people are using coupons fraudulently. The clerk at Walmart told me that the day before a woman had come through with photocopied coupons and tried every single checker in the hopes that someone would let them go through. And it is hard to tell a legitimate printed coupon from a good color photocopy. I see their problem.

I am willing to be polite but very stubborn in a case where I know that I am using a coupon ethically and in accordance with store policy and manufacturer's wishes. It can be frustrating sometimes, and sometimes I feel like the store clerks and managers think I'm trying to rip them off. I don't like that at all! But it helps that I know that I am not doing anything wrong. If I wasn't sure, I would be a lot less comfortable discussing it with managers!

If I truly don't know that something is not right and find out later (as in the P&G case), I don't lose sleep over it. But as I learn that these issues exist, I am spending more effort trying to make sure that I am using coupons in an ethical manner. First because I am a child of God, and when it comes down to it, coupon fraud is stealing. And second because misuse of coupons by some (or many) makes it that much harder for all of us to use them at all.

So why this lengthy post? Because it seems that a lot of people don't even know this is an issue, and it is an important one. I have appreciated those (few) couponing bloggers who have brought issues of couponing ethics to my attention - I wouldn't have known of many of these ethical questions otherwise - and I want to help in the attempt to educate people. Also, I want to be able to use coupons in my quest for more frugal living (and besides, it is fun!) So I would urge any of you who are interested in couponing to be careful. Be educated. And then do the right thing.


Ma Torg said...

I must confess that I have a real problem with the CVSing thing. I'm all for cutting down the grocery bill and such, but I do it by trying to buy things cheaply and in season or buying dried goods instead of can, etc. I don't like playing the coupon game (in terms of doubling up as much as possible) because I think it does border on being unethical. To get money back through coupons is robbing a company, in my opinion. I even think getting prices that are just too incredible is a bit extreme. I don't have a problem with one coupon per say, but I do think that doubling up on coupons and such might be somewhat of an abuse.

If it weren't for this post, I never would have said anything and please forgive me if I have embarrassed you or offended you.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Ma Torg, no offense taken. :) I disagree with your thought that using coupons is "robbing a company" since it is the company that issues the coupons. If they are used legally and in accordance with the company's policies, then I think it is ethical to use them. Why would it not be? They issue coupons in the hope that you will buy their product and/or shop at their store. And you know what - it works! When I need something like tape or staples or whatever, I am much more likely to buy it at CVS because I go there now. I never used to. So they do get business from it, and that's what they want.

So, just to clarify, I take issue with the MIS-use of coupons, not their use.

sarah marie said...

Can I weigh in here? "Doubling up" coupons, or "stacking," affects the store on the one count, and the manufacturer on the other. The store runs a sale or coupon assuming people will take advantage of the offer or promotion and come shop at their store. The manufacturer issues a coupon with the same hope - that people will try their product. It's important to note that both companies still make a profit - the store is reimbursed for the manufacturer's coupon, and the manufacturer is making a profit from the store. People who wait and use coupons on sales, or combine store coupons with MQs are just taking advantage of two deals aligning, but the store and manufacturer are still separate and largely unaffected by one another. Right?

sarah marie said...

Em, here's another grey area I wonder about: coupons that state "do not double," but are automatically doubled by the store computer anyway. Should we remind the clerk to manually un-double, or just let the computer do its thing?

I totally agree with you about iheartcvs, and while I still visit that site for previews of upcoming weekly deals, I recently decided to stop trying her "scenarios" or using the coupons she posts - since I read her stating that if people report her for posting those coupons, it's fine because by the time legal action is taken to make her remove the postings, people will have been able to print the coupons already. Ugh! Now I just use pdfs when they are from a manufacturer's website.

You're so right that fraudulent use of coupons really affects stores and employees. I had a good conversation with a CVS employee one time when a coupon I handed her beeped. I immediately said, "Oh, that was my mistake I think - I was going to get that product and then put it back, I'm sorry I still handed you the coupon by mistake." She was really nice about it, and said, "Thanks... a lot of shoppers come in here and are really pushy, trying to make us push the coupons through after they beep, and then if we give in and do that, we get in trouble if it turns out it wasn't supposed to be used." It was nice to hear her perspective on coupon shoppers... crazy couponers and unethical couponers are giving all couponers a bad name, I think.

Two weeks ago during the P&G promotion at Shaw's I mistakenly used a Pantene coupon for the wrong size shampoo bottle - it was made out to be for a large one, and I didn't notice and used it for the smaller bottle that was on sale. It worked because the bar code matched, but when I realized my mistake I felt rather guilty; I got that shampoo for pennies but that wasn't the manufacturer's intent. There are certainly a lot of coupons that will work for similar items or other sized items, but are not intended to be used that way - but lots of shoppers will see if they can "get away with it" on purpose.

Amie said...

I must echo Sarah. If Walgreen's (no CVS here) offers a promo where they give you $3 off a $5 profit they are doing so to get you into the store to purchase their product. For Walgreen's the coupon I hand them for $2 off is like cash, they turn it into the manufacturer for the $2 (and a bit).
The manufacturer still receives the $3 from Walgreen's. I am combining both offers for a deal but am not "robbing" the companies.
At times I explain this to clerks that my coupon is like cash to the store. They will be reimbursed and are not using any money.
Thanks for the great post Emily! I am in agreement with you that I will do my best to use coupons legally as I do my best to use everything ethically. Be sure and point out to me if anything you get from me is a bit shady :-)

Amie said...

Are you sure the sausage coupon is illegally hijacked? Here is a link to the main page I got it from and they have it in pdf format themselves...hmmmm

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Amie, I'm sure that the coupon IS legal. Sorry if that didn't come across well! I double checked at the original site just to make sure. What I was saying in my post was that it IS a legitimate coupon, but that Albertsons didn't recognize it as such.

Ma Torg said...

Sarah Marie--thanks for the 'doubling coupons' explanation. Dind't realize that's how it worked.

Erin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Sarah, I'm not sure about the coupons that state "do not double". I hadn't thought about that one. I guess my initial thought would be, why do they state that at all? A store that doubles a coupon does so at their own discretion. A manufacturer that issues a coupon does so at their discretion. I guess I don't see why it is any of the manufacturer's business if the store doubles them? But maybe I just don't understand something about how it all works. Your thoughts?

Melissa said...

This is such a great post! I think a lot of people get caught up in the excitement of getting a deal and are looking at different blogs not knowing what is and is not legit. I always worry about a coupon newbie reading about some of these grey area or not legit at all deals and then having a horrible experience at check-out because stores have really started to crack down on fraudulent coupons.

As far as the P&G Esaver coupons goes, I thought I read on HCW at one point that they had checked and it had been OK'd to use the Esaver and paper coupons together? It's been awhile since I read that, but I have been doing it so I'm hoping it's OK.

Amie said...

Here's a question for you. Do you feel it's illegal to "purchase" or give away your coupons (such as expired coupon donations to different military bases across the country?) The coupons say all over them that they cannot be transferred or sold...but it sure seems a waste to throw them away when I could be blessing a military family...thoughts?

BusyMom said...

Okay, then I have a question for you. You mentioned over at my blog that I could also use the $4 Fusion coupon with the deal I was considering...1 shampoo, 1 razor use the get shampoo with razor coupon...can I really use two coupons - the get one free and the $4 off coupon? See, I feel like in a BOGO, I can use two...but with this one, I am using two coupons on the razor which doesn't feel right. Do you know - does it work/should it work?

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I discussed that one in depth with my husband, because I had the same initial reaction that you did - aren't the coupons both being used on the razor? Well, no. A coupon gives you a certain amount of money off a certain product. In the case of the razor and shampoo, the $4 off comes off the razor (obviously) and the $4.99 (free product amount) comes off the shampoo. The coupon for free shampoo requires that you buy a razor (which you do), but the discount comes off the shampoo. The coupon for the razor simply discounts the razor. Does that sort of make sense?

I will say that I haven't actually done this deal yet. And if they have a problem with it at the store I probably won't argue with them too much, just because it IS a bit confusing. :)

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I couldn't find any recent conversations about it on HCW. If you find more information about that, could you let me know? Thanks!

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Amie, I'm not sure what to think of transferring coupons. Yes, they do all say that they can't be transferred. That said, what exactly does that mean? I've never been really clear on that. Does it mean that I can't buy coupons off ebay (even though they all use the "loophole" that you're paying for their time, not the coupons?) Obviously that is a loophole, and so I'm not sure that I'm ok with buying them because it seems fairly clear that it is not using coupons the way the manufacturer intended.

On the other hand, does "no transferring" mean that I can't get extra coupon inserts from my neighbor who doesn't want hers? Or give a coupon that I don't need to a friend who does use that product? Technically it seems that would also be "transferring", but it seems a little silly to me to consider that unethical. So I guess I'll just have to think about that one more. What do you think about it? I'd love to hear some arguments for and against.

Amie said...

The no transferring thing has me thoroughly confused, I can see how this could be abuse if I had my neighbor print me more of an online coupon when they have an obvious limit set, but for paper coupons that someone has "bought" why can't I donate them to a just seems odd. I'm just not sure what to think about it...

Sweetwater Savings said...

Emily, I'm glad you left a comment on my blog, I added a comment that links to you here I was reading a blog today that recommended using 7 of the same coupons to buy 7 of the same items to get a deal. Something I see quite often (using multiple coupons, more then the average 2 or 3). Assuming this is legitimate (by buying multiple papers) is it still ethical? Just curious as to what you think.
Have a great night,

Beth said...

Thank you. I am a frugal blogger and I have to admit, I wasn't aware that I Heart CVS coupons are usually frauds. I try VERY hard to stick to the code of ethics when it comes to coupons, because the last thing I want to do is encourage my readers to use an illegal coupon. I'm glad I found out, so I wouldn't post coupons from there any longer.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...


I think that it is ethical to use multiple coupons, as long as they are real coupons (not copies) and the coupon states "one per purchase". In that case, if you are purchasing the item, you are in compliance with the intentions of the manufacturer.

Now, there are some coupons (usually store coupons) that specifically state "one per card" or "one per person" or "one per household". In those cases, using more than one is definitely not ethical.

Erica said...

Emily, I had a similar question last week on the "Do not double" coupons. After a search I found this explanation....but I have no idea how accurate it is. It is food for thought, though.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Erica, thank you for the helpful link.

Jessica Morris said...

This was so well written!! You should some how link to it in your giveaway so it gets a bit more attention :)
I appreciated and enjoyed what you had to say! And agree with you completely!

Linds said...


I'm curious about your explanation of the doubling up that the cvs coupons do -- even if the manufacturers and the brick and mortars have an arrangement, if the shoppers aren't spending money, and in some cases even receive money in return for the "purchase", there's no capital entering the system. Isn't that the kind of moneyshifting that causes problems on down the line (or at least in the Kantian sense)?

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I'm not sure Sarah is still reading, but I'll speak to that question: I think it isn't an issue because most people don't bother to spend the time and effort to use coupons in this way. The sales/coupons/gimmicks work for the stores because they draw lots of people in, most of whom won't be taking full advantage of them.

I just talked to a cashier last night who said that most people don't even bother to take their ECBs when they get them, and some people will refuse to use a store coupon even when offered to them at checkout. They just don't care, and they are infusing lots of money into the system.

On top of that, those of us who do stack coupons and sales and walk away with free items, generally also do other shopping there. If I need cleaner or staples or tape I will buy it at CVS because I'm there. So yes, we do spend money. Just not much. :)

Does that answer your question?

Linds said...

Kind of - and thanks! I just can't help thinking that if more people took advantage of the circumstances, the business would fold pretty fast. I don't mind saving money in the least, but playing a game and getting paid to take merchandise strikes me as far too good to be true.

I guess I have too much of the economic crisis on my brain... I've been studying it to try to explain it to my students. :)