Wednesday 2 March 2016

Adventures in Couponing (Pt 2 of 4) - Stigma and Challenges

The Stigma:
Before Junko showed me the light, if I had ever given coupons any thought at all, the thought would have been that I was averse to using them. Forced to justify this, I might have pointed out the inconvenience of collecting, carrying and using them to save insignificant amounts of money. But mostly, it was the embarrassment of having people think that, maybe, I was so poor that I had to use coupons.

My attitude changed abruptly the first time that I witnessed her purchase brand-name bacon at a dollar a pound while the next person in line paid five. I thought about how it would feel to be that person, and my embarrassment vanished, replaced by pride. Suddenly, I wanted to tell everyone I knew how much money my clever wife was saving us.

But, of course, most people are still hesitant to use a coupon. Junko has offered other shoppers her extras, which is a great way to create an awkward moment from scratch. The strangers tend to stare, bewildered, unable to properly assess the value of what she is offering and, usually, politely decline. Conversely, however, if a cashier applies a coupon automatically, as they do at the London Drugs in our area, customers would never consider refusing to accept the discount—no different than they would accept a special price marked on the shelf.

It's all about interaction. These days, people do not want to interact with their cashier. They just want to pay and go home. And, when it comes to coupons, many cashiers don't look forward to the interaction, either, as it can often be a brow-furrowing experience; deciphering the limits of the offer and assessing how it might interact with other offers, as well as store policy.

I, too, was resistant for years, but now I'm smug. For me, it has become clear that coupon savings are the reason we can homeschool our children and vacation in Japan, every three or four years, without financial consequence. I don't shop often, but now, before I do, I always ask Junko if she knows of a deal or has a coupon that might apply. Also, I let her know in advance when I am thinking of purchasing something, then she keeps her eyes peeled for specials.

Our children have been raised to save. Their keen eyes are quick to spot in-store specials and though they don't clip coupons, they do check the flyers if they have their eye on something. They have Christmas and birthday money to spend, but neither one would ever consider purchasing a toy at full retail. My son once waited two months for delivery of a video game, direct from Japan, because it was $5 cheaper than at Toys-R-Us. When I was a kid, I couldn't even wait for Jell-O to set.

The Challenges...
When it comes to couponing, Junko applies all of her considerable cunning and will not be deterred. When I see the determination, attention to detail and meticulousness with which she maps out her shopping itinerary, I know that if she wanted it so, I'd already be dead. So, no sense worrying about that, but, also, maybe I should buy some flowers on the way home from work today.

For reasons that, initially, I could not fathom, successfully cashing in a coupon seems to make her happy. And, at first, that's why I was patient, if not encouraging: "Happy wife, happy life."

A couple of years in, her methods evolved from just cutting coupons out of newspapers and flyers to looking them up online and submitting receipts, electronically. She was consuming hours, each day, hunting for new coupons, researching how those could be combined with in-store promotions and studying store policies in the eventuality that a cashier might refuse to cooperate. Her savings went from half-off the occasional product, to cheques arriving in the mail, paying her for purchasing! At first, as couponing started consuming her hours, I was concerned, but soon, I went from tolerating her new-found hobby, which sometimes meant we had to make random and inconvenient grocery stops during family outings, to praying that she never stops.

It should have been obvious when she decided to marry me that she likes a challenge. I think, Junko views couponing as a challenging game, with money as the prize. And, for a traditional Japanese housewife, there can be no greater incentive than saving the family money. (In Japan, typically, the wife is the financial manager, handling all the important decisions, including when to buy and sell the family home, and doling the husband a monthly allowance.) 

For Junko, there certainly are challenges. English is her second language. She's fluent, but even so, understanding the fine print on some of these promotions is like deciphering a law text. Which brings up the next challenge: Many cashiers and managers are not so fluent and need further education in their own language. When she feels it may be necessary, Junko prepares by bringing with her printouts of store policy and coupons with key phrases highlighted. Before shopping, Junko often spends an hour organizing her coupons, her itinerary and her strategy, working out which coupons can be combined, where the savings will be maximized and how to present it all at the cash register, including counter-arguments, should there be resistance.

In spite of all of this preparation, sometimes things do not go smoothly at the till. If the store is unwilling to allow her discounts, Junko will easily and politely relent, but she will also abandon her coupon purchases. In this day and age where everyone considers their time to be precious, store personnel are often unprepared for this and I have witnessed their shock as Junko leaves the store empty-handed, and their unexpected loss of time and sales sinks in.

If you think about the coupon system, you will realize that it must work for both the manufacturer and the store or else they would not offer it. When you redeem a coupon, the store sends it to the manufacturer who repays the store for the discount. There is no loss to the store. The manufacturer considers it an advertising cost and hopes to transform a couponer into a loyal customer. Somewhere in an office in Los Angeles or New York, some advertising executive has calculated it all out and decided that the benefits outweigh the expenditures, including the cost of obsessive-compulsive, bulk-purchasing couponers. But many cashiers and store managers do not understand this, and resist redeeming coupons. Admittedly, in this computer-paced age, with multiple offers on the table, things can get complicated. Still, there is no reason to rant or cry about it. But sometimes, they do.

At one Shopper's Drug Mart, Junko purchased three jars of pickles. She could have cleared the shelves, but she imposes what she considers reasonable limits on herself. Combining a coupon with the in-store sale price, it came to pennies a jar. The cashier cried, telling her that they would go out of business if people kept doing this. Junko was embarrassed and said nothing, but she was thinking that they should consider raising their price on pickles. Regardless, the store will be reimbursed. The cashier's concern assumes that management has not given this any thought, and in regards to a national chain like Shopper's Drug Mart, this is naive. It's been more than a year and that Shopper's Drug Mart is still in business.

Last January, when Junko returned a roll of wrapping paper that she'd purchased before Christmas, for 80¢, the manager threw a tantrum, smashing the roll against the countertop and throwing it across the floor while surprised shoppers gawked. Apparently, he was angry because he'd just bundled up all the leftover wrapping paper and returned it to the manufacturer. Perhaps he should have considered his store's two-week return policy. I suspect that the problems at that particular location run deeper than simple issues of retailing.

Superstore has a policy that if the in-store price marked on an item is incorrect, they will give you $10 off at the cash register. Junko quickly realized that our local branch was lax in making sure their shelf prices matched the flyers. One day she found a product that was mispriced in this way. It cost less than $10 and, of course, she had a coupon. The manager was called and reluctantly gave her cash for purchasing. Junko waited a week and returned to find that they still had not changed the shelf price. She bought another. Again, the manager was called and was even more reluctant to hand over the money. Two weeks later, Junko found the shelf price unchanged and bought the item for the third time. The manager freaked out and told her that this was the last time she would honour the coupon. What's weird is, all they had to do to solve the problem was change the shelf price. Junko feels that they should either change their store policy or get their act together and she is merciless on this issue, regularly finding other mispriced items and going through that same manager, every time. There is little doubt that she is truly hated by that particular manager. Incidentally, two weeks after all of this, the price was still unaltered. My theory: This store is banking on the consumer's reluctance to call them on store policies they advertise to attract customers. In the longterm, not a winning policy.

But, sometimes, the staff can be on her side. During the brief time that Target was in Canada, they had some strange policy of selling things at full price for a few months, then putting them on special at prices so low that it was ridiculous, presumably to clear shelf space. When these prices were combined with coupons, the deals were so spectacular that Junko went there almost every day and the cashiers came to know her. They were so impressed with her deals that they'd strike up conversations about her methods. Some planned to make similar purchases for themselves. Everyone at Target was friendly and helpful, including the guy running the hot dog cart outside the main entrance who asked her out for coffee. She tells me that she declined.

Junko was heartbroken to see that store close their doors, but I joked that she had, singlehandedly, couponed Target out of Canada. She did not find this funny. Too soon, I guess. While Junko mourned, Target's bean counters were doing their "happy dance." I'm sure there are still board meetings during which they watch security footage of Junko shopping their profits away, as a training exercise.

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