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A coupon for this... Can I use it on that? - Jill Cataldo

Q: "A friend told me I could use coupons to purchase items that are not specified on the coupon. For example, she said I could use coupons for granola bars, which I don't eat, on cereal or other products made by the same manufacturer. Is this true?"

A: What your friend describes is coupon fraud. I absolutely do not approve of this. Coupons are intended only for use on the product specified. Under the existing bar code system, some coupons will scan on several products made by the same manufacturer. However, it is fraudulent to use them in this manner. There are several reasons your friend's suggestion is a bad idea.

A cashier is likely to notice that you're attempting to use coupons for items you're not purchasing. It is the cashier's job - and responsibility - to disallow any coupons that don't match up with products on the belt in the checkout lane. Trying to "beat the system," by slipping coupons past the cashier for products you did not buy is an excellent way to ensure that you're treated with suspicion on future shopping trips.

Using coupons in an "off-label" manner such as this actually hurts your store financially. When a store turns in its coupons for redemption, a manufacturer may request a report from the store that tallies stock and sales for the products for which coupons are being redeemed. If the store is unable to show corresponding sales for the coupons it presents, the manufacturer can refuse to reimburse the store. So, using coupons in this way is a form of theft, and it hurts our stores immensely in the long run. You wouldn't shoplift from your store, and you shouldn't use coupons for products you're not buying, either.

I have always believed in using coupons ethically. We can enjoy significant and often incredible savings when we use coupons honestly. Why break the rules to save a little more?

You might wonder why coupons scan on products the manufacturer did not intend to offer discounts on. The answer lies in the bar code system, which has been in place for decades. It utilizes a "family code" to group similar products made by the same manufacturer. When the register checks to make sure that the product falls into a matching family of products made by the manufacturer, it may recognize more than one product as a "match" for that coupon. Because of the limitations of this system, it is possible to use a product coupon for a different product made by the same manufacturer.

We are rapidly moving into a new age of couponing, however. If you look at the bar codes on any coupon, you'll see the standard UPC code on the left and a new, larger bar code on the right. This is the new GS1 DataBar, an advanced system of identification that will work globally and which allows for the inclusion of much more, and more specific information than old bar codes. GS1 DataBar symbols can identify the type, size and brand of items the coupon may be used on, plus details on serial numbers, lot numbers and even expiration dates.

As coupon technology transitions to scanning the new bar code, coupon fraud based on the old "family code" system will be eliminated. Once this bar code is fully in use, shoppers will no longer be able to use coupons on the wrong products. If you have gamed the system in the past, it's time to stop. Not only is it wrong to do, but also your days are numbered!

Manufacturers offer coupons to shoppers for an array of reasons. If a manufacturer offers a coupon for granola bars but not cereal, it's because the manufacturer is particularly interested in boosting sales on the granola bars - and only the granola bars.

Next week, we'll talk about a different kind of off-label coupon fraud that involves "peelie" coupons attached directly to products.

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.supercouponing.com. E-mail your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.