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 bricks.coupons 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.