Wednesday 2 March 2016

Adventures in Couponing (Pt 3 of 4) - Dilemmas

Conundrums and dilemmas...
You might not think so, but, in couponing, there are dilemmas, which may, or may not, be moral. It's hard to say as there is little mention of coupons in the Bible or Quran, and the Dalai Lama has been conspicuously silent. The closest I've seen to moral guidance was a fortune cookie that said, "Today are golden human nicety. Choose Daily Special for $1 off! Your lucky number is G," but after eating the Daily Special, I don't put much stock in that.

The ethical grey area starts back with the very definition of a coupon. By one definition, a coupon is a discount offered by the manufacturer, targeted at people who have not yet tried their product in the hopes that they will become loyal customers. But for this plan to work, most loyal customers must pay full retail while newcomers get a discount. A darker view is that it is a kind of pyramid scheme which robs loyal customers in order to attract new ones. If all goes as the manufacturer plans, the loyal customers will never see the coupon and the newcomers will fall in love with their product and start purchasing it, even when they don't have a coupon. Once they are loyal to the brand, they will, in turn, be "robbed" to finance the next coupon-fishing expedition. It's the opposite of the idea of rewarding loyalty. But obviously, it works, because not only do manufacturers keep on issuing coupons, they are issuing them in greater numbers than ever before.

The Government has its own ideas about coupons, considering them another form of taxable income. If those coffers had their druthers, every consumer would be required to declare coupons on their taxes. Presently, this is impractical, not to mention that it would effectively undermine the entire coupon model. But they want their piece of the pie and so here's their compromise: If you have a coupon for 100%-off an item, you will pay sales tax on the full retail value. This seems rather arbitrary when you consider that if the store offered a 100% discount at the shelf, there would be no tax. It would be considered a free giveaway, and, moreover, a tax-deductible expense for the retailer. It gets even weirder once you know that if your coupon had saved you all but one penny, you would only have to pay tax on that single penny! Consequently, there have been times where Junko elected to not save as much as she might have because paying a small amount for the item was better than paying the tax on the normal retail value.

On a smaller scale, there are personal dilemmas.

Junko shops every day—this is a Japanese thing—and thus is rarely "scooped" by other couponers. She has ample opportunity to clean the shelves of items she finds valuable. But she doesn't, feeling some obligation to other couponers as well as to the store; allowing it to attract other customers with the discounted products. If there is a pad of coupons attached to the store shelf, she will help herself to a reasonable portion of them, but will not take the entire pad, as some do.

But what about coupons that are actually attached to a product? That's a trickier one.

Say a 25%-off coupon for bacon is attached to skin cream. Is it ok to take one? Is it ok to take them all? Or should you only take the ones attached to products that you buy? For most, the initial reaction is that it's wrong to take the bacon coupon unless you purchase the skin cream. Obviously, the manufacturer does not care. If they did, they would put the coupon on the inside of the packaging, or incorporate it into the label so that it can not be removed. For those who really just wanted skin cream, there is no loss if the coupon is missing. The worst case is that those that wanted, both, skin cream and bacon and who would use a coupon, don't get a discount. There can also be a downside for the store if it does not sell bacon. In that case, taking the coupon removes the extra purchasing incentive from the skin cream and the store might lose skin cream sales, recouping nothing through bacon sales. The upshot is that few, if any, are negatively affected by missing coupons.

But it can get even trickier than that: What if you are using the coupon to purchase another flavour of the same item? The first time Junko encountered this particular coupon-dilemma was with hair dye. The blonde dye had a discount coupon attached to it. But she wanted brown. She peeled the coupons off the blonde and use them to purchase the brown dye. She did not clear the shelves, but did buy 20 boxes. They were male hair dye. Not one of her subtlest hints.

Junko still does not have a firm policy on such coupons. Most people won't use coupons and are unaffected, but she doesn't want to steal from other couponers, nor does she want to negatively impact the store. She feels that she must apply limits in order for coupons to continue to work for everyone involved: consumers, stores and manufacturers. It's a matter of long-term sustainability.

Being perfectly fair to all concerned is a sensitive matter, for some. And the typical initial reaction is often the exact opposite of the reality.

I have also noticed this to be true when we give a gift that has been acquired using coupons.

It is well known to our family and friends that Junko is a couponer. They know that she regularly gets things like brand-name hair products, cologne, perfume and makeup, chocolate bars and movie tickets for free—or close to it. Each Christmas, she creates generous gift baskets for all the adults composed of these products. It's never been said, but I suspect that even though these are very practical and expensive products they are not appreciated at their full value because the perception is that they are free. Well, first of all, they are not free. Even if they cost us little, or nothing, Junko spends hours working to get these products. And, secondly, as Christmas gifts go, they are by far the most thoughtful ever exchanged among the adults in our family because she thinks about these people and their needs on a regular basis, all year long. If you ask her, you will find that she has a very good reason for giving every item in a basket to that particular person. If it's the thought that counts, then her gifts are extremely valuable.

These days, we're all pretty sensitive regarding our carbon footprint and, in this respect, couponing will not make you any sort of Greenpeace hero.

Many of the items we get are one-time-use, disposable or sample-sized products. Junko once came home with 300 sample-sized packages of Zantac heartburn medication. None of us have stomach issues, and so, we gave a lot of it away. Each cardboard container held a plastic and foil strip which held only three pills. Why did she buy so many? Because she then submitted the receipts to an online coupon site and got more money back than she paid because of a Zantac rebate that applied even to these 3-packs. It was good for us, but not so good for the environment as all of that packaging had to be recycled.

At the height of her mania for her new-found hobby, Walmart had a policy that allowed Junko to purchase groceries at great savings. In order to accomplish this, she picked up dozens of their free, full-colour product magazines, ripped out the coupons she wanted and dump the remaining 40-plus pages into our recycle bin. She operated similarly with other free magazines and newspapers that are distributed around our city. For a time, she even drove around to fast food restaurants asking for flyers from their day-old city newspapers. Managers were happy to be relieved of the excess paper.

Magazines and flyers are not printed in one's and two's, so all of this printed matter and associated packaging is going to end up in a recycle bin somewhere, regardless whether couponers take them. However, if there were no couponers, the print runs and the associated environmental impact might be smaller.

These days most coupons and discounts are offered online and printed out, at home. When Walmart extended their price matching policy Canada-wide, Junko went online and found flyers in small eastern towns, printed reams of advertisements as proof, and price matched against obscure corner store specials. During that time, she brought home meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables, often paid nothing, or got money back at the cash register. She then spent days cooking up a storm, converting the raw ingredients into frozen meals. Only the environment and our recycling collectors suffered.

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