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Why do coupons expire?

Engaging in a discussion about expired coupons with an avid couponer is like opening a can of worms. Many shoppers believe they should be entitled to use coupons past the printed expiration dates. Before we delve into that issue, there's an important question to answer: Why do coupons expire at all?

Many years ago, coupons often had extremely long expiration dates -- some even carried the proclamation, "No Expiration Date." But today's coupons, on average, expire in three to six months. As with anything, there are exceptions. You may find a short-dated coupon that expires in six weeks or a long-dated one that's good for nine months or more.

Why do coupons expire? Companies want us to use coupons to buy their products within a specified time frame. The coupon, whether found in the newspaper or on the Internet, is typically part of a promotional campaign that includes other forms of advertising, such as in-store signage and promotion, newspaper and magazine ads and TV spots all scheduled around the same time. This is especially true for new products. With a new product, the goal is often to get people to try the product quickly after the launch, so the company can determine if the product is likely to be successful.

For example, a detergent manufacturer recently released a new product for pre-treating laundry stains. There are similar products on the market, so the manufacturer needs to make an impression and entice shoppers to switch brands. I especially enjoy watching new products hit the market because marketers typically will offer much higher-value coupons when a product is first introduced than they will when the product has been on the market for awhile.

Convincing a shopper to try a new brand when there are already similar, proven products on store shelves is a big challenge. A high-value coupon is often the incentive a shopper needs to take a chance on a new product rather than buying a tried-and-true brand. The manufacturer often will run multiple advertising campaigns to try to get shoppers to buy an item during a coupon promotion.

The new stain pre-treatment product was priced at $3.74, comparable to the competition. But its manufacturer issued $1.50 coupons as part of the launch campaign. That's not bad. And a $1.50 coupon definitely has potential if the price of the item is further reduced with a sale.

A few weeks after I got the $1.50 coupon, my newspaper ran a full-page advertisement for the new laundry product. The ad encouraged shoppers to buy the product at a specific store and included a $1.50 store coupon. This store allows shoppers to "stack" coupons, allowing shoppers to use one store coupon and one manufacturer coupon together on the same item. Stacking these two coupons would save me a total of $3 on this $3.74 item -- over 75 percent savings! Time to buy. I happily took my bottle home for 74 cents.

This is a great example of a manufacturer using coupons to drive sales within a certain timeframe. The manufacturer coupon expired two months from when I received it and the store coupon expired five weeks from the day it appeared in the paper.

From the manufacturer's standpoint, my purchase was a sign of a successful marketing campaign. The coupons enticed me to try the new product, which I likely wouldn't have bought unless it was a very good deal. The shorter expiration dates on the coupons ensured I would buy it within a specific time frame, key to the product's successful launch. Coupons helped the company boost sales in a short period of time.

Next week, I'll answer a question from a reader who wants to know when, if ever, it's OK to use an expired coupon.

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.