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Can stores invent coupon rules? - Jill Cataldo

Q: "Our grocery store will not double coupons until a shopper has purchased items totaling $25. They will only double six coupons. Is the store allowed to set its own rules?"

A: We've visited the topic of stores' coupon policies many times in this column, and it may surprise you that the answer to your question is, "Yes." A store can absolutely choose to require a certain amount of spending before it doubles coupons, or limit the number of coupons it will double, or choose not to double coupons at all. A store can choose to accept competitors' coupons or turn them down. It can even choose not to accept any manufacturer coupons at all.

While I gather from your e-mail that you might find this policy restrictive, it's definitely at the store's discretion to implement whatever rules it feels are necessary to maintain a profit margin, while still enticing customers to shop there, versus a competitor.

So why might a store implement a policy like this? Remember, when a store doubles coupons, it also "eats" the cost of doubling. If a store doubles a 50-cent coupon to $1, it is willingly giving up 50 cents of profit as an incentive to get you to shop in the store. In limiting the number of coupons doubled per transaction, the store is also reducing the loss it will take on the coupons it accepts.

No major supermarket in my area doubles coupons. The closest grocery stores that offer double coupons are more than 40 minutes' drive from my house. With three major supermarkets just five minutes away from my door, it's not terribly practical to drive farther to enjoy some coupon doubling. But, occasionally, if I'm in the area, I absolutely stop and shop. These not-so-near-me supermarkets will only double two like coupons per transaction. But, if I plan to use two coupons for detergent, two for salad dressing, two for shredded cheese, and so on, I can still put a nice trip together and maximize my doubling, even with the restrictions.

As for your store's $25 minimum purchase, again, the store is ensuring that customers won't come in and just "skim" the best sales at the store. As an extreme example, a shopper could buy 100 items priced at $1 each, use 100 50-cent coupons - which, doubled, make those items free - and walk out of the store paying only tax.

While this sounds like fun for shoppers, it's not as much fun for the store, if it takes a financial loss on those items. In requiring a $25 minimum purchase, the store ensures that it will get at least that amount spent in the store, pre-coupon.

This isn't an uncommon practice, by the way. One supermarket in my area offers great store coupons in its flyer each week. Because they're store coupons, I can stack manufacturer coupons with them and really bring down the prices of the featured items. For example, a recent flyer offered a store coupon reducing the price of a bottle of laundry detergent to $2.99. I also had a $3 manufacturer coupon for the detergent; stacked with the $2.99 store coupon, my detergent was free! But in order to use that great coupon, or any of the store coupons in the weekly ad, I also need to spend a minimum of $10 in the store.

Again, while this may seem slightly frustrating, if enough of those store coupons bring prices down into the great-deal range, the $10 minimum doesn't seem too bad to me. If I buy milk, produce and a few other items, I'm usually over the $10 mark and can enjoy getting the coupon items at bargain prices.

As always, check with your store to learn exactly what their coupon policy states regarding the terms of coupon use at that chain or location.

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.