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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Test your coupon smarts


Now that the economy is in a much less exuberant mood and food prices have skyrocketed, coupons are more important than ever.

Almost 94 percent of Americans redeem at least one coupon a year now, according to Charlie Brown at NCH Marketing Services, an Illinois coupon clearinghouse for retailers and manufacturers. And 16 percent of coupons redeemed for groceries are printed at home via the Internet.

That's up significantly from 2003, when about 80 percent of shoppers clipped coupons, and only 1 percent of coupons redeemed were printed off the Internet.

Some Americans are clipping so crazily that cable TV channel TLC has debuted a reality show called Extreme Couponing. In one recent week's show, a hard-core couponer packed more than $5,000 worth of groceries into multiple carts, but after coupons, he paid only $250.

Admirable? Crazy? You decide -- but most of us are like Hannah Lloyd of Minneapolis. She uses coupons about half the time when she's grocery shopping.

"I'll bet I save about $250 a year using coupons," she said.

No coupon queen, Ms. Lloyd frequently forgets them and wishes there were an easier, quicker way than the snip, snip, print, snip.

Whether you save $200 or $2,000 a year with coupons, here are a few questions to check your clipping competence.

1. Are expiration periods getting shorter?

Yes. They are now about nine weeks, compared with 12 in 2003. Marketers are trying to control the costs of promotion. But Mr. Brown said that's not all bad. With a shorter shelf life, marketers can offer coupons more frequently.

2. What's the most common misconception about coupons?

People think the average coupon user is low-income, but it's typically a woman with kids in a household with an annual income of $50,000 to $75,000.

3. What are the five most popular types of coupons redeemed?

In order, breakfast foods (cereal), oral hygiene products (toothpaste), pet food, household cleaners, and vitamins/supplements.

4. Why don't more stores double the value of coupons?

It's expensive. The retailer foots the entire bill for such promotions.

5. Why do some coupons say "not subject to doubling"?

Retailers that double coupons often work in cooperation with coupon manufacturers to limit the amounts in their area, Mr. Brown said. But it often works to a shopper's advantage, because a manufacturer might offer a $1 coupon in one area that is "not subject to doubling," but in other areas, the coupon might be 40 cents. This arrangement makes the manufacturer foot more of the bill than the retailer.

6. Why don't warehouse clubs accept manufacturers' coupons?

Manufacturers' coupons aren't compatible with the larger multipacks offered at warehouse clubs. "I don't think we'll see traditional manufacturer coupons at most warehouse clubs," Mr. Brown said.

7. Are coupons-on-demand in the near future?

Some will be. As shoppers go down the aisle, they'll get a coupon alert on their mobile phones that will last for 30 minutes or less, said Phil Lempert of Supermarket Guru. Only coupons for items preselected by the user will be sent. But most consumers want coupons before they get to the store, so they can plan their shopping trip, Mr. Brown said. Mobile phone coupons are still in their early stages. It's difficult for manufacturers to integrate the coupons with the retailers, so it's either done via store loyalty cards (Kroger) or by stores such as Target offering them in-house (www.target.com/mobile).

8. I don't have time to be an extreme couponer, but I can spend 20 minutes a week. How much will that save me, on average?

About $2,000 a year, Mr. Brown said.

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