Save big at the supermarket with coupons

Coupons are worth way more than the paper they're printed on, so take advantage of the latest trends

Published: April 10, 2014 02:50 PM

You can have all the gee-whiz electronic gadgets in the world, but one of the surest ways to save money at the supermarket still depends on a pair of sharp scissors.

In 2013, manufacturers distributed 315 billion coupons for packaged goods – paper towels, orange juice, cereal, detergent, and the like. That’s an almost unfathomable 1,000 coupons for every person in the U.S -- enough to have one heck of a ticker-tape parade. Although only a scant 2.8 percent were actually redeemed, the aggregate savings to consumers was $3.5 billion.

Most of those coupons weren’t unearthed by techno-savvy shoppers wielding smartphones and using deal-sniffing mobile apps like Saving Star, Grocery IQ, or Cellfire. Ninety-one percent were distributed in paper form, primarily via freestanding inserts stuffed between the sections of Sunday newspapers. Old school. Less than 1 percent of coupons were distributed digitally, meaning they could be downloaded electronically or printed at home.

For most shoppers, the potential savings justify the time spent clipping. The average value of a typical coupon jumped nearly 6 percent last year, to $1.62 (vs. $1.27 in 2012), says Charles K. Brown, vice president of marketing for NCH Marketing Services, which tracks coupon activity.

But the tradeoff for the higher face value is the requirement to purchase multiple items to get the deal. A quarter of all coupons insist you buy more than one item. This is part of an ongoing trend. Another trend is shorter expiration dates. Consumers have less time to use their coupons. Offer durations have shrunk to 8.6 weeks, on average, vs. 9.3 weeks a couple of years ago.

For more great shopping strategies and tips, check our supermarket buying guide, which includes Ratings of 55 grocers.

It’s easy to play the coupon game and win. The trick is to know where to unearth the bargains and how to maximize savings. To learn how to get more from you store, check out Consumer Reports latest supermarket report, which includes ratings of 55 grocery chains. For a head start on raising your coupon IQ, try these tips:

  • No paper, no problem. If you miss the Sunday paper, don’t worry. More and more major manufacturers, from Procter & Gamble and Campbell’s Soup, to Heinz and Kraft, allow consumers to download their latest coupons from the websites of retailers who stock their products. Coupons usually can be printed out at home or downloaded to a digital device.
  • Visit the manufacturer’s website directly. Packaged goods makers occasionally dangle exclusive offers to brand loyalists who visit their sites. You might have to share your name, e-mail address, and other contact information, and doing so could result in pitches for other products.
  • Be social. Many brands communicate with their biggest fans via social media sites such as Facebook, and announce new products or line extensions with fanfare that includes contests and promo codes for free or discounted merchandise, “deals of the day” from selected merchants, and other perks.
  • Join a preferred-shopper club. If your supermarket has a shopper club-card program, Consumer Reports subscribers say join it. In our latest reader survey, 84 percent of those who signed up were satisfied with the savings. Card-club members can generally load manufacturers’ coupons onto their card from the store’s website, and avoid clipping. When the clerk scans your card at the checkout, the discount is applied. Depending on the chain, card members may be entitled to exclusive benefits such as coupon doubling, buy-one-get-one-free offers, points toward fuel rewards and cash rebates, coupons toward future purchases, and bonus savings on senior shopping days.
  • Speak up. Have a bad experience with a product? Perhaps the chips weren’t crispy, the cookies crumbled, the salsa sour, or there was too much syrup and not enough peaches in the can. Maybe you noticed the manufacture shrunk the size of the package, but not the price. We’ve complained or simply expressed our opinion occasionally when a product has disappointed. If you contact customer-service (and it’s beneficial to have the product nearby for identification purposes), as per the instructions on the package, the company will typically mail you coupons to apologize and retain your business.

—Tod Marks

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