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Loyalty programs yield big pay days

While it's exciting to cut your grocery bill significantly with coupons, there are great ways to save on non-food items, too, especially personal-care and cleaning products. Many national drugstore chains offer what the retail industry refers to as "loyalty programs" that often feature special deals on items in these categories. These store loyalty programs include coupons for store credit that shoppers receive when they purchase one or more of the promoted products.

So how do these promotions work? Here's an example. In my drugstore's weekly flier, the store advertises that if I buy a certain brand of shampoo for $3.99, I will get a $3 coupon at checkout. This coupon is good for a $3 reduction on any product sold in the store. It's almost like a gift card. I can use the $3 credit to buy anything I want, it's not tied to any specific item. These coupons typically bear a statement such as, "Good for $3 off your next purchase." However, unlike a gift card, these coupons carry an expiration date, just as a traditional coupon does. This is the "loyalty" part of the program. The drugstore wants you to come back in over the next few weeks and shop again.

Since I will pay $3.99 for the shampoo but will immediately receive $3 back at checkout for use on a future trip, the actual cost of the shampoo to me is just 99 cents. The $3 I spent on the shampoo comes right back to me in the form of store credit - the checkout coupon.

Now, it's always fun to get money back when you shop. But the wonderful thing about loyalty programs is that you can use coupons on the items involved in these promotions. And, using coupons in conjunction with the loyalty savings often results in big savings to you, the shopper.

With the shampoo example above, let's add a coupon into the mix. For this brand of shampoo, I had a $2 manufacturer coupon. So, with the coupon, my $3.99 bottle of shampoo cost just $1.99. I paid $1.99... and I also received that $3 coupon for my next shopping trip. This deal just became what I like to call a "moneymaker!" When we figure that $3 coupon into the equation, I paid less than $2 for the shampoo and got $3 back. The store paid me $1.01 to take that shampoo home.

You may wonder how often drugstores feature loyalty sales such as this. The answer? Almost every week! Check the fliers of the large drugstore chains in your area and look for items with text near them indicating that they will "pay you back" a certain dollar amount in coupons for purchasing the item. These kinds of payback deals are frequent and plentiful.

So what kinds of items are included in these sales? Almost every kind of personal-care item you can imagine: toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, conditioner, razors, shaving products, makeup, even over-the-counter medicines are featured regularly. Household cleaners, air fresheners, laundry and dish detergent are often included in these sales, too. If you use coupons in conjunction with the items involved, you can often get the items in question for less than a dollar, and many times, completely free. Better yet, there are times when the store will be "paying" you to take things home too. And any time the store is paying me to shop, I'm smiling all the way to the checkout lane!

Jill Cataldo, a coupon-workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her Web site, www.super-couponing.com. E-mail your couponing coups and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.